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Search Simplified: A Complete Guide to SEO [2020]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any business that wishes to succeed is in need of SEO. Consider this: any person faced with a problem often turns to Google for the...

Fiona Gurtiza
Fiona Gurtiza September 4, 2020

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any business that wishes to succeed is in need of SEO.

Consider this: any person faced with a problem often turns to Google for the answer. These problems could range from what color to paint their bedroom to the best way to cook vegan lasagna. 

If you want customers to choose your product or service as a solution to their problem, you’ll need to have a solid presence online. And making your brand visible on search engines entails optimizing your content so that it appears at the top of the search results when someone enters your target keywords.

On paper, it may sound easy. And it is, as long as you understand what SEO is and how it works.

Our definitive guide simplifies SEO, breaking it down to its core concepts. From there, we’ll show you how to use these elements so you can start building your foundation for success. 

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization, or SEO, describes the practice of increasing organic (non-paid) traffic to your site by improving your ranking and visibility on search engines. 

But how exactly do search engines rank pages? 

Search engines use algorithms to give websites a score or ranking. These rankings can help influence the position of a web page for a search query. Higher ranking scores translate to a higher position on search engine result pages (SERPs). 

The score that your website gets depends on different factors, but it can be summed into three:

By providing quality, authority, and trust, you can maximize SERP real estate and propel your brand to the top when people search for relevant keywords.

Keep in mind, however, that SEO stretches far beyond how search engines evaluate your site. If you really want it to work, you’ll need to understand user intent and learn about the search terms they use, the answers they seek, and the type of content they want to consume. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you connect with people who search for you online. 

It helps to consider audience intent and how search engines evaluate your site as two sides of the same coin. After all, you can’t have one without the other. 

White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO

The SEO landscape is so extensive that you’ll come across different ways to approach site optimization. A lot of these tactics work, and the concept of which one works best can be subjective. 

There is one distinction, however, that you’ll need to be aware of: white hat and black hat SEO. Some might argue that they’re two different schools of thought, but they’re more accurately described as the right and wrong way to do SEO.

In a nutshell, white hat SEO describes the correct and ethical way for you to optimize your site. Basically, white hat practices follow search engine guidelines, focus on a human audience, and utilizes a long-term approach to success.

Black hat SEO, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. Black hat tactics violate search engine guidelines, rely on manipulative tactics, and focus on quick wins. So even though it can produce results, they’re often short-lived and disregard human needs.

Take heart: people who uphold the “spirit of the basic principles” will be rewarded with better rankings than those who rely on deceptive practices to reach the top.

How Search Engines Work

Search engines can be best described as an answering machine. They scour the web for content and evaluate them based on their relevance to the question a person is searching for.

If you want your site to show up on the search results, your content needs to be visible to search engines. If your site can’t be found, there’s a slim chance it’ll ever show up on the SERPs.

Search engines perform three primary functions. These include:

Crawling

When search engines crawl your site, they send out a team of bots (also called spiders or crawlers) to find new and updated content. The content could range from videos to webpages, which bots discover through links. 

The process starts when bots fetch a few web pages, then follow the links on those pages to find new URLs. Hopping from one link to another lets crawlers find new content to add to their index, or a massive database of discovered URLs. 

Telling search engines how to crawl your site can help you gain greater control over what shows up on the index. If your site isn’t showing up anywhere on the search results, consider these factors:

Indexing

When a person searches for related content, the crawler retrieves the URL from the index that a search query is a good match for. Once a web page has been added to the index, it has the potential to be displayed as a result for relevant queries. 

It’s possible for you to tell search engines how to index your site. Meta directives (also called meta tags) are instructions that you can serve up to tell search engines how to treat your site.

For instance, you can tell search engines, “do not index this page in search results” or “do not pass link equity to any on-page blogs.” You can specify these settings by including a meta tag on your HTML pages or on the HTTP header. 

Ranking

When search engines scour their index, they order highly relevant content with the hopes of addressing a searcher’s query. The process of ordering these search results is called ranking. Search engines usually rank websites higher if they believe that the content it offers is relevant to a user’s query. 

If you want to make your content visible online, you’ll need to make sure it’s accessible to crawlers and is easy to index. Otherwise, your site has a slim chance of showing up on the top of the SERPs.

Search engines use algorithms to determine where a website should show up in the search results for a specific query. Algorithms go through many changes to improve the overall quality of search results, and these modifications could range from minor tweaks to core algorithm updates that tackle a certain issue. 

Top Three Ranking Factors for SEO

Optimizing your site for SEO entails improving ranking factors in three different areas: on-site optimization, content, and links. Let’s go through each one in detail.

1. On-site Optimization

On-site optimization, or technical SEO, is crucial to helping search engines find your pages on the web. With technical SEO, Google can scan and index your website without any problems. 

Before we proceed, you’ll need to understand that web pages look different to us and the search engine. We see websites as a collection of graphics, links, and formatted text. For search engines, however, the content is nothing but text. 

With that said, let’s take a closer look at how you can improve the technical set-up of your site to make it more appealing from a search engine point of view. 

Site Navigation & Links

As discussed in the previous section, search engine bots work by landing on a page then using other links to find more content to crawl and index. Since these crawlers are unable to identify images, set your links and navigation to text-only.

URL Structure

Search engines aren’t fond of lengthy URLs with complex structures. Keep it as short as possible by limiting your URL structure to the main keyword you’re optimizing the page for.

Page Speed

Load times are a clear indicator of page quality. Learn how to optimize page speed by using Google’s Page Speed Insights tool

Dead Links & Broken Redirects

Dead links point users to non-existent pages and broken redirects link to a page that’s no longer there. Free your site of these links as they provide poor UX and could prevent Google from indexing your content.

Sitemap & Robots.txt Files

Sitemaps list all the URLs on your site, helping search engines identify pages to crawl and index. Robots.txt files, on the other hand, tell search engines what content they shouldn’t be indexing. With both elements, you can speed up the time it takes for Google to crawl and index your site.

Duplicate Content

Search engines consider duplicate content on webpages as a negative ranking factor. After all, similar content makes it harder for search engines to determine what content to display in the SERPs. Search engines may even penalize websites with duplicate content with a penalty.

2. Content

In the world of SEO, content is king. Without content, there’s no way for you to gain search visibility.

For one, content is what people are looking for every time they enter a search engine query. Search engines also use content to determine how and where to rank a page. 

So how do you optimize your content for SEO?

Keyword Research

If you want SEO to work, you’ll need to attract people who need what you sell. This all starts by discovering what phrases potential customers enter into search engines. 

To conduct successful keyword research, identify topics and terms related to your business. From there, you can convert these search terms and topic clusters into initial keywords. Through more extensive research, you can refine your list of keywords and use them to optimize your content.

On-page Optimization

On-page optimization (or on-page SEO) helps search engines understand the topic and keywords of a certain webpage before matching them to relevant queries.

Keep in mind that on-page SEO is different from on-site/technical SEO. On-page SEO focuses on keywords, but it could also optimize code elements to match the right keywords with the appropriate search query.

Keyword Optimization

The goal is for you to help Google understand what keywords you want your webpage to rank for. Make it a point to include your keywords in the following:

Don’t limit your keywords to the main search term, though. Use semantic keywords, or variations and synonyms of your primary keyword. This can help Google determine the relevancy of your page better.

External & Internal Links

Position your content as a valuable resource by linking to authority sites related to your main topic. Including external links helps Google determine context, making your content easier to rank.

Internal links help give your site a solid ranking boost because it lets search engines find and crawl other pages on your site. More importantly, linking to other internal pages establishes semantic relations between your content. As a rule of thumb, include 2-4 internal links for each of your blog posts.

Authority

Showcase your industry expertise by incorporating exhaustive information on your topic. Longer blog posts have a higher chance of ranking higher on search engines.

Multimedia & Media-Rich Content

Including multimedia elements to your content is optional, but media-rich content like videos and infographics can be an indicator of good page quality. Since multimedia elements keep readers on a page for longer, it could signify that your content offers greater value.

3. Links

Google and other search engines work to provide users with the most relevant answers to their questions. One way to do this is by prioritizing pages that are relevant. But apart from paying attention to relevance, search engines also consider pages that are popular.

The best way you can outrank the competition is to establish your authority by earning links from popular sites and nurturing an audience that considers your site as a useful resource. 

But what exactly is a link, and how do you earn links from other websites?

Inbound links, also called backlinks or external links, are hyperlinks that direct users from one site to another. They’re best described as the currency of the internet, and they’ve been considered an indicator of site popularity and importance since the late 1990s.

Expertise, Authority, Trustworthiness

Search engines have refined the way they evaluate links, using algorithms to assess a site based on the concept of E-A-T: expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. Sites that fail to display these qualities tend to be of a lower quality.

This means that the quality and quantity of links on a webpage can signify the authority of a site. If you really think about it, it makes sense that a webmaster would reference a popular, high-quality site than a mediocre one that doesn’t provide value.

Other factors that determine link quality include:

So if you want to provide searchers with credible, trustworthy content, you’ll need to obtain links from sites that demonstrate E-A-T.

Link Building

Link building describes the process of acquiring new links. Conducting it successfully requires creativity, patience, and creative thinking. 

In your quest to earn more links, however, you may lose sight of your goal of providing value, and focus too much on increasing your rankings. Take heart: your link building efforts shouldn’t involve manipulating your rankings in the SERPs. Rather, it should be all about earning them.

Here are some things for your to avoid if you want to stay penalty-free:

Keep in mind that your links should come from authority sites and bring qualified traffic to your site. More importantly, they should be strategically targeted or naturally earned. 

Below you’ll find some tips on how you can earn high-quality links:

Fundamental Steps to SEO Success

Organic search is one of the most profitable channels in the SEO landscape. As long as you’re willing to put forth the time and effort into crafting an effective strategy, you can win your customers over and take the most coveted spots at the top of the SERPs.

But where do you start?

There are six fundamental steps involved in running a successful SEO campaign. These include:

  1. Evaluating site health
  2. Identifying keyword opportunities
  3. Optimizing web pages for target keywords
  4. Ensuring website accessibility
  5. Obtaining relevant backlinks
  6. Measuring SEO success

Let’s go through each step in detail.

Evaluating Site Health

An SEO audit evaluates your site and grades it based on its ability to appear on the SERPs. It helps to think of it as a report card for your visibility on Google — even if you have a clean, well-designed interface, your site still won’t see the light of day if search engines are unable to read your site.

Here are some factors to consider when auditing your site:

Crawlability

Consider whether your primary web pages can be crawled by search engines. Check whether your site has an accurate sitemap.xml file in place to assist search engine bots when crawling your site. Clear your site of any robots.txt file that could be blocking search engines from crawling your webpages.

H1 Tags & Meta Descriptions

Yout title tags and meta descriptions should capture the content of your web pages. Make sure they’re enticing enough for searchers to click when your site appears on the SERPs. You might want to take a look at your click-through rates to gauge how you can improve your title tags and meta descriptions further.

Content Quality

Does your content align with your target market’s needs? Great content offers value, so consider making your content media-rich by adding videos, infographics, high-impact visuals, and more to make people stay longer on your site.

Page Speed

Does your site take too long to load? Check for page speed times on both desktop and mobile. You may want to compress images, for instance, to speed up load times.

Indexed Pages

If you want to dominate the search results, your web pages need to be found on Google. Conduct a site:yoursite.com or site:yoursite.com/specific-page test on Google to confirm if your web pages are parts its index. 

Identifying Keyword Opportunities

Optimizing your site starts with knowing what your target audience is searching for. Let’s say you run a plumbing company in Dallas. Here are some keywords that your customers might be using on Google:

Listing down relevant keywords is where understanding searcher intent starts. You can start brainstorming for similar keywords then use it as a springboard when you branch out and conduct greater, in-depth keyword research. 

Using your initial pool of keywords is a good starting point if you want to figure out how people search for your business. After all, there’s a high probability that your customers are searching for your company using the terms and phrases that you’ve already jotted down. 

Below, you’ll find some tips on how to identify other keyword opportunities:

Conduct a Google Search

Start by conducting a simple Google search of one of the keywords on your list. Take a look at the search results and identify which keyword/s appear the most. Following our previous example, you might have noticed most results have “Dallas plumber” in the title.

Find out whether “Dallas plumber” is a good main keyword by using a keyword research tool like Ahrefs or or SEMRush. Check for keyword traffic potential and the search volume of its parent topic. 

Determine Long-tail & Related Keywords

Not every searches for a “Dallas plumber” when looking for a plumbing service, though. People have different ways of searching for the same things, after all. 

Get the full picture and identify what these other keywords are by taking another look at the Google search results. Single out similar and related phrases that pop up repeatedly in search results — these might include search terms such as “affordable Dallas plumber” or “home plumbing service Dallas.”

Meanwhile, if you want to uncover granular searches your customers are making, simply perform a Google autocomplete results test. Start by typing a query in the search box without hitting enter, and Google will immediately serve up search term suggestions that other people have used. Repeat this step and get mre results by adding each letter of the alphabet after your search term.

For more insights about what questions people usually search for, check out Google’s “People Also Ask” in the Google results.

Explore Topics of Interest

What type of content sparks interest among your readers? Your SEO success will depend on how well you understand how your customers think, and this means you’ll have to know what their pain points are or how they’re talking about your niche.

Figure out what topics are popular in your industry and use that as a springboard to identify keywords related to these topics. Here are some places where you can look:

Once you’ve figured out the keywords that you want to rank for, you can start assigning them to the pages on your site. It helps to create a map that links your keyword clusters to a page on your site.

Optimizing Web Pages for Target Keywords

The next step in your SEO strategy is on-page optimization.  

Optimizing your site for SEO starts with a seamless UX. The idea is for you to structure your web pages to satisfy customer intent should a visitor land on your page after searching for your target keywords.

Align Content with Search Intent

Every query has its own unique intent. It’ll be easier for you to optimize your site if you get into the heads of your target audience and determine search intent. 

Search intent describes the ultimate goal of the person entering a query on Google. It answers the questions, “Why is something searching at all?” and “What does a person expect out of a landing page?”

There are three basic ways for you to group user intent:

Now that user intent is clear, it’ll be easier for you to create and structure your content to align with what your target audience is looking for.

Create Compelling Meta Titles & Descriptions

Search engines use your site’s meta title and meta description to build up the search results. Your meta title sets the name of your browser tab, and search engines use it when showing your page in the SERPs.

A great title tag and meta description includes your main keyword and is compelling enough to entice people to click and visit your site. Avoid the risk of your titles or descriptions getting truncated by using a SERP pixel tool. 

Create a Logical Page Structure

Make your content easy for search engines to understand by using headers and subheaders to highlight the importance of each section on your page. Organizing your site structure also makes it easier for search engines to crawl your page.

Header 1 is reserved for the title of your content and should include your main keyword. Header 2s help split your content into different sections. As you step deeper into your content, you can add more H3, H4, and H5 headings to make your content easier to follow.

Optimize Your Images

Images are helpful because they help readers through your content. But as helpful as they are, search engines don’t see them in the same way.

You’ll need help search engines make sense out of the images you plan to use for your copy. Adding an Alt tag to your images provides context, and makes your content easier to rank and index.

Ensuring Website Accessibility

When optimizing your site for SEO, you’re doing it for two types of customers: search engine bots and your target audience. Your end goal is to provide a positive experience for both humans and bots.

Here’s how you can improve website accessibility on both fronts:

Optimize Site Load Speed

Did you know that page load times have a significant impact on your bottom line? Data shows that 47% of shoppers expect a site to load in two seconds or less, and 40% leave a site if it takes more than three seconds to load. 

If this data teaches us anything, it’s that every second counts. 

Consider using tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights or GTMetrix to find out how long it takes for your pages to load. You can also obtain actionable insights on how to improve page speed further.

Keep it Mobile-Friendly

More and more people are searching for products using their smartphones. Moreover, Google rolled out “mobile-first indexing” — a process that involves using the mobile version of a site’s content for crawling, indexing, and ranking. Google offers a Mobile-Friendly Test tool that lets you determine if your site is optimized for mobile.

Install an SSL Certificate

Google takes security seriously, and a strong HTTPS encryption is one of its official ranking signals.

If you run an e-commerce site and accept form submissions, you’ll need an SSL certificate to ensure users of your site’s security. Sites that use SSL are indicated through a padlock icon found on the URL bar.

Create a Sitemap

Sitemaps are XML files that list your website’s important content. It should include pages or files that you want to show up on search engines. Even though sitemaps don’t have a direct impact on your rankings, they make it easier for Google to find and index pages on your site.

There are various free tools available that let you generate your own sitemap. If you’re using the Yoast SEO plug-in, you can use it to create a sitemap for you.

Upload robots.txt Files

If sitemaps provide an organized layout of your site, robots.txt files provide clear instructions to search engine bots about which parts of your site they should and shouldn’t index. Robots.txt files are important because search engines only have a set number of pages they’re allowed to crawl during each visit. 

Obtaining Relevant Backlinks

Backlinks are an important ranking factor on Google. 

A good place to start when building backlinks in to take a closer look at how your competitors are obtaining links. It pays to assess what your industry peers are doing because it can help inform your digital strategy and create guidelines on how to blow them out of the water.

Once you’ve gotten the pulse on how your competition is faring, you can try out these link building hacks:

Outreach SEO

Have you recently written a great piece of content? Let’s say you’ve recently published a Travel Guide to the National Parks and it’s so well-written and up-to-date that it deserves more backlinks than similar pieces of content on the web.

Consider reaching out to the people who have linked to other guides similar to your own and find out if they can link to your content, too. Sometimes, all it takes  is a gentle push to make people learn how valuable your content is and link back to your site.

Broken Link Building

Broken link building is a strategy that involves finding broken links, recreating the content, and helping webmasters replace broken links with a suitable replacement on your site. The power of this technique lies in the fact that you know what site owners want to link to, and you’re helping them improve their site.

You can start with broken link building by running a Broken Link Report on tools such as Ahrefs. You can also use Wayback Machine to determine what the content of a dead link used to look like.

Guest Posting

Writing guest posts can be an effective link building tactic. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t use it as a large-scale method to build links back to your site. Rather, treat guest blogging as a way for you to obtain backlinks by publishing useful, top-quality content. 

Some basic rules for you to follow when making guest posts include:

When done right, your guest posts can turn into a great tool for generating traffic, improving rankings, and building brand awareness.

Measuring SEO Success

There’s no way for you to improve something that isn’t measurable. Measuring the impact of your campaigns and conducting ongoing refinements are critical to your SEO success. By monitoring your progress, it’s so much easier to change tack when something isn’t working.

Get a better pulse on your current SEO performance by paying attention to these useful metrics:

Engagement 

Engagement metrics provide insight on how people behave once they reach your site. Consider the following:

Search Traffic

By monitoring your site’s organic search traffic, you can get a clearer picture on how effective your SEO strategy is. To uncover traffic insights, you can use Google Analytics (GA). Some areas of search traffic you can measure include:

Other SEO Metrics

Keyword Rankings 

Keyword rankings tell you how your website ranks for your target keywords. These rankings also include other elements of SERP real estate, such as featured snippets and “People Also Ask” boxes you’re trying to rank for.

When tracking your rankings, however, try to steer clear of vague, competitive keywords that fail to convert as well as more specific, long-tail keywords. 

Backlinks

The links that point to your site could make or break your reputation. Take a closer look at the quantity and quality of the backlinks and linking root domains your site currently has.

Domain Authority & Page Authority

A site’s domain authority (DA) measures the predictive ranking strength of entire domains or subdomains on the SERPs. Page authority (PA), on the other hand, measures the predictive ranking strength of a single page. These metrics are calculated using the same methodology, and DA and PA are graded on a 100-point logarithmic scale. Higher scores correspond to a greater ability to rank high on the SERPs.

Take note that DA and PA aren’t used by Google to determine search rankings. This means that you shouldn’t treat it as an absolute value to measure the success of your SEO efforts by. Instead, use these metrics to compare your site against the link metrics of your competitors and identify how you can make your site perform better.

The Road Ahead

Now that we’ve given you a basic walk-through of SEO, you can start making more informed decisions when it comes to your SEO efforts. After all, in today’s competitive landscape, you can’t simply shoot arrows in the dark — you’ll need to start hitting your targets with precision and put more wood behind fewer arrows. 

By understanding the key tactics involved in effective SEO, you can develop a solid strategy to drive organic traffic to your site. At the end of the day, it’s all about being present, staying relevant, and building trust in the people who search for your brand.

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