What is SEO?
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a broad marketing discipline that encompasses a wide variety of different techniques for improving a website’s rankings in search engine results. SEO techniques are often categorised as either ‘on-page’ or ‘off-page’ – both of which will be explored in the course of this article.
As this is a beginner’s guide, you don’t have to have any prior SEO knowledge to understand the concepts we’re discussing. It’s designed to give you a good foundation without you needing to read anything else. However, if you’re familiar with some aspects already or you’re looking for a particular refresher, feel free to use the table of contents below to skip to the most relevant section.
- What is SEO?
- Why is SEO important?
- Do we optimise for all search engines or just Google?
- Optimised content
- Keyword research
- Crafting targeted content
- Understanding user intent
- Technical excellence
- Indexability and site structure
- Broken links
- Site speed
- Relevant link building
- Introducing PageRank
- Obtaining high quality links
- Skills needed for a career in SEO
- Could your business benefit from SEO support?
Why is SEO important?
Organic search engine traffic (i.e. traffic that hasn’t come through paid ads) nearly always makes up the largest chunk of web traffic to a site. Improving in this area can, therefore, have a significant impact on the number of visitors and conversions you see each month.
The above graph shows traffic to a small lead generation company from April 2018 to March 2019. The blue line is organic traffic, the orange is traffic from ads and green is direct traffic (from users typing the site into their browsers). It’s easy to see why it’s important for this company to spend a lot of time focusing on SEO.
In this particular example, organic traffic makes up a full three quarters of the site’s sessions and 72% of their online conversions, which leads us on to another crucial point. SEO is not just about driving traffic to a site, but driving traffic that converts.
Do we optimise for all search engines or just Google?
Search engine optimisation is a broad discipline, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Google is the sole focus of the industry with the amount that it’s talked about. While it’s important not to ignore all the other search engines out there, there’s good reason for all of Google’s attention.
According to Statista, Google’s UK market share is a staggering 89%, with Bing in second on just 7%. The American information giant handles around two trillion searches every year, which equates to roughly 63,000 searches a second. It’s no surprise that companies want a slice of that visibility.
Google has built up to such impressive stats through industry leading technology. The search engine runs on powerful algorithms and even includes bleeding edge machine learning technology to help it understand unique search queries. Over the years, it has made a number of significant changes to its core algorithms that have moved the goalposts for SEOs everywhere. A large part of our job is ensuring that websites are optimised to achieve and maintain rankings regardless of what Google does in the future. Because of the quality that Google demands, in the vast majority of cases we find that optimising for the search giant also stands us in good stead with its competitors.
In this beginners guide, we’ll look at current best practices that we believe will stand the test of time. These techniques are grouped under three key components of SEO:
- Optimised content
- Technical excellence
- Relevant link building
Content has been important to SEO since the earliest days of the discipline, as all search engines use a website’s content to determine which searches it’s eligible to rank for. Whenever a user enters a search query, Google scours its index for pages that contain relevant content, then uses a number of other ranking factors to determine the order it should show these pages. Because of this, keyword research is a crucial first step in any content optimisation strategy.
Keyword research involves using tools to discover the language with which your audience is searching. This should help to shape the language you use on a page, and can perhaps even help you decide which categories, products or services to prioritise in your wider business strategy.
Most keyword research tools, such as Ahrefs, SEMRush and Google’s Keyword Planner, provide estimated monthly search volumes for specific keywords. Ahrefs and SEMRush are both excellent, but require paid subscriptions, whereas anyone with an active Google Ads campaign can use Keyword Planner.
Whatever tool you use, your starting point should be finding the search volumes for all the phrases you can think of that relate to your categories, products and services. Most tools will also give you further suggestions, which can broaden your ideas once you’ve collected data for your core phrases.
With this information at hand, you’re all set to optimise your content.
Crafting targeted content
As great as Google is at understanding language, it’s still really helpful to make sure that a page’s primary keyword is prominent in its heading and copy. However, we’ve moved past the days of needing to mention it in every sentence.
Instead, it’s much better to mention your target keyword a couple of times, then use variants or semantically related terms elsewhere. When determining if a page should rank for a particular keyword, Google now takes into account that page’s topic, and whether or not it includes phrases that the search engine considers to be associated with the target keyword.
It’s critical that you create content for your human users first, not for Google. Keep your target keywords in mind, but any content that doesn’t read well to a regular human probably won’t rank well now, and almost definitely won’t rank well in the future.
Understanding user intent
Whatever keywords you’re targeting, you need to be able to understand the intent behind them. Google divides search queries into four categories:
- Know – the searcher wants to find information.
- Do – the searcher wants to perform an action, like making a purchase.
- Website – the searcher wants to navigate to a specific website that they have in mind.
- Visit-in-person – the searcher wants to find the physical location of a business or type of business.
Each keyword will fall into one of those intent categories, and if you’re page doesn’t satisfy the intent it won’t rank. Thankfully, the intent behind most keywords is easy to identify with a bit of common sense. The query, ‘buy cheap shoes,’ is clearly a Do query, whereas ‘what are the best cheap shoes’ is a Know query.
Generally, product and services pages work best to satisfy Do queries, while you’ll want blog posts and guides to satisfy Know queries. Website and Visit queries are harder to optimise for, but it helps to have all of your business information clearly and consistently presented across your site and to have a full Google My Business listing.
Good content won’t help it if can’t be found. Ensuring that your website is technically excellent means ensuring that it can be crawled and indexed by search engines and that it will deliver on many of the ranking factors that Google weighs up when deciding which pages to rank above others.
Indexability and site structure
Your primary technical concern should be the indexability of your site. In other words, can crawl engines identify all the pages that you want them to rank? Google and other search engines send out bots known as spiders that ‘crawl’ websites – following links to discover pages and add them to their indexes. If a page is marked as ‘noindex’ it won’t be indexed, and if a link is marked as ‘nofollow’ they won’t use it to get to its destination page.
For your website to be fully indexed, it needs to be as easy as possible for spiders to access all the pages you want them to see. You can achieve this through a good site structure, in which your homepage links to your main category and service pages, which in turn link to subcategory, sub-service and product pages. It’s important not to have too many levels of links for spiders to follow and for the most important pages to be clearly signalled by being the target of more links than other pages. If you were to draw it out, your site structure should ideally look like a pyramid three or four levels deep.
It’s crucial that you avoid having links on your site that point to a broken page (normally a page that returns a 404 error message). If you find a 404 page on your site, you should remove the links that points to it or change them so that it points to a current page. Broken links tend to crop up more if the site has recently undergone changes in its structure, so be sure to give it a thorough check if you’ve made any significant page alterations recently.
Fixing broken links is important for SEO as it makes your site much easier for search engines to crawl. Think of every broken link as a dead end street – a search engine can’t use it to find the rest of the site. To give your key pages the best chance of indexation, your site needs to be as easy and smooth to crawl as possible.
The speed of your site is an important SEO ranking factor, but it will also give your users a better experience. Free online tools from Pingdom and Google will grade the speed of your site and give you some pointers, but unless you have a fairly broad set of web development skills it would be better to outsource any improvements rather than attempting them yourself.
Site speed is also critical for mobile site optimisation, which is more important than ever now that Google has introduced mobile-first indexing. This means that Google will judge the content and quality of a site’s mobile version as a first port of call, rather than the desktop version. Mobile optimisation is particularly important if you know that a large percentage of your customers use mobile devices to access your site. If this is something that you feel is important to your business, make sure that you raise it as a priority with your developers.
Relevant link building
Content and technical SEO both fall under the umbrella of on-page SEO, but they need to be supported by off-page SEO or, to reduce it to its primary concern, links.
When Google was launched in 1996 there was one thing that really set it apart from other search engines: PageRank. This was a score of 1-100 given to every site in its index based on the number and quality of links pointing to them from other sites.
PageRank is a way of assessing the quality and trustworthiness of any given site. Every link pointing to a site is like a vote of confidence, but not all links are equal. Links from other authoritative sites, like the BBC, the Guardian or Vogue, are generally worth more than links from less authoritative sites.
Obtaining high quality links
Links have a direct impact on the ranking of your site, but obtaining high quality links isn’t easy. The ideal scenario is to have great sites linking to yours naturally through awareness of your product and brand, but not every business can be fortunate enough to garner that kind of attention. To be successful, most businesses need to be proactive.
The first step is to identify the sites you want links from. Every business wants to be featured on the BBC, but there will be plenty of other sites related to your industry and target market. As Google has evolved, it considers the relevance of a link over and above the linking site’s baseline authority. Industry magazines or news sites covering your sector can be great link sources.
With a list in mind, you’ll then want to get in touch with these publications to offer them something of value, whether that’s an insightful comment on industry developments, an interview with a key figure in your business or an interesting data set that you’ve pulled together. Sites will only feature you and link to your site if you’re offering something of value to their readers.
Our beginner’s guide to digital PR will give you much more information on this topic, so if you’re interested we recommend checking that out next.
Skills needed for a career in SEO
SEO is a varied discipline in which all kinds of people with all kinds of skills can thrive. It is common to find people with web development skills working side by side with people who have backgrounds in writing, management, traditional marketing and more. However, while practical skills can vary enormously, there are a few qualities that will be helpful for anyone starting out in SEO.
- Strategic thinking – SEO involves balancing both short term and long term gains. You’ll need to be able to formulate strategies that will give you success in the short term and be sustainable for the long term.
- Adaptability – SEO is a broad discipline, and your work could look very different day to day. You need to be prepared to shift gears and give full attention to whatever your current task is.
- Communication – whether you work in-house for one business or you work for multiple clients in an agency, it’s essential to be able to report on what you’re doing and why to key stakeholders who won’t always be interested in the finer details.
- Creativity – content creation, link building and even technical improvements all require creativity. SEO is a young industry in which innovation is key; to succeed you need to be able to think up and execute fresh ideas.
- Willingness to learn – as search engines evolve, so must SEO. There are always new things to learn, and the more open you are to improving your knowledge both individually and in group contexts, the better you’ll be at your job.
Could your business benefit from SEO support?
We’ve created this beginners guide to help you get started with your own SEO strategies, but we’re also well aware that it’s a lot to take in all at once. Successful SEO strategies require a long term investment of time and effort, which can go to waste if you don’t see the results you were hoping for.