This guide will be an introduction to and overview of search engine optimization (SEO), a hugely important tactic for driving traffic to your site.
In this guide you’ll learn:
Let’s get started!
Search engine optimization is the process of optimizing web pages and their content to be easily discoverable by users searching for terms relevant to your website. The term SEO also describes the process of making web pages easier for search engine indexing software, known as “crawlers,” to find, scan, and index your site.
While the concept of SEO is relatively straightforward, many newcomers to SEO still have questions about the specifics, such as:
Perhaps the most important aspect of search engine optimization is how you can actually leverage SEO to help drive more relevant traffic, leads, and sales for your business.
Billions of searches are conducted online every single day. This means an immense amount of specific, high-intent traffic.
Many people search for specific products and services with the intent to pay for these things. These searches are known to have commercial intent, meaning they are clearly indicating with their search that they want to buy something you offer.
A search query like “car dealerships near me” displays clear commercial intent
People are searching for any manner of things directly related to your business. Beyond that, your prospects are also searching for all kinds of things that are only loosely related to your business. These represent even more opportunities to connect with those folks and help answer their questions, solve their problems, and become a trusted resource for them.
Are you more likely to get your widgets from a trusted resource who offered great information each of the last four times you turned to Google for help with a problem, or someone you’ve never heard of?
It’s important to note that Google is responsible for the majority of the search engine traffic in the world. This may vary from one industry to another, but it’s likely that Google is the dominant player in the search results that your business or website would want to show up in, but the best practices outlined in this guide will help you to position your site and its content to rank in other search engines, as well.
So how does Google determine which pages to return in response to what people search for? How do you get all of this valuable traffic to your site?
Google’s algorithm is extremely complex, but at a high level:
Increasingly, additional ranking signals are being evaluated by Google’s algorithm to determine where a site will rank, such as:
There are hundreds of ranking factors that Google’s algorithm considers in response to searches, and Google is constantly updating and refining its process to ensure that it delivers the best possible user experience.
The first step in search engine optimization is to determine what you’re actually optimizing for. This means identifying terms people are searching for, also known as “keywords,” that you want your website to rank for in search engines like Google.
For example, you may want your widget company to show up when people look for “widgets,” and maybe when they type in things like “buy widgets.” The figure below shows search volume, or the estimated number of searches for a specific term, over a period of time:
Tracking SEO keywords across various time periods
There are several key factors to take into account when determining the keywords you want to target on your site:
First you need to understand who your prospective customers are and what they’re likely to search for. From there you need to understand:
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have an initial “seed list” of possible keywords and domains to help you find additional keyword ideas and to put some search volume and competition metrics around.
WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool for SEO
Additionally, if you have an existing site, you’re likely getting some traffic from search engines already. If that’s the case, you can use some of your own keyword data to help you understand which terms are driving traffic (and which you might be able to rank a bit better for).
Unfortunately, Google has stopped delivering a lot of the information about what people are searching for to analytics providers. Google does make some of this data available in their free Webmaster Tools interface (if you haven’t set up an account, this is a very valuable SEO tool both for unearthing search query data and for diagnosing various technical SEO issues).
Once you’ve taken the time to understand your prospects, have looked at the keywords driving traffic to your competitors and related sites, and have looked at the terms driving traffic to your own site, you need to work to understand which terms you can conceivably rank for and where the best opportunities actually lie.
Determining the relative competition of a keyword can be a fairly complex task. At a very high level, you need to understand:
You can dive deeper into the process of determining how competitive keywords are by using WordStream founder Larry Kim’s competitive index formula.
Once you have your keyword list, the next step is actually implementing your targeted keywords into your site’s content. Each page on your site should be targeting a core term, as well as a “basket” of related terms. In his overview of the perfectly optimized page, Rand Fishkin offers a nice visual of what a well (or perfectly) optimized page looks like:
The “Perfectly Optimized Page” (via Moz)
Let’s look at a few critical, basic on-page elements you’ll want to understand as you think about how to drive search engine traffic to your website:
While Google is working to better understand the actual meaning of a page and de-emphasizing (and even punishing) aggressive and manipulative use of keywords, including the term (and related terms) that you want to rank for in your pages is still valuable. And the single most impactful place you can put your keyword is your page’s title tag.
The title tag is not your page’s primary headline. The headline you see on the page is typically an H1 (or possibly an H2) HTML element. The title tag is what you can see at the very top of your browser, and is populated by your page’s source code in a meta tag:
Your title tag matches your organic result headline: Make it clickable
The length of a title tag that Google will show will vary (it’s based on pixels, not character counts) but in general 55-60 characters is a good rule of thumb here. If possible you want to work in your core keyword, and if you can do it in a natural and compelling way, add some related modifiers around that term as well. Keep in mind though: the title tag will frequently be what a searcher sees in search results for your page. It’s the “headline” in organic search results, so you also want to take how clickable your title tag is into account.
While the title tag is effectively your search listing’s headline, the meta description (another meta HTML element that can be updated in your site’s code, but isn’t seen on your actual page) is effectively your site’s additional ad copy. Google takes some liberties with what they display in search results, so your meta description may not always show, but if you have a compelling description of your page that would make folks searching likely to click, you can greatly increase traffic. (Remember: showing up in search results is just the first step! You still need to get searchers to come to your site, and then actually take the action you want.)
Here’s an example of a real-world meta description showing in search results:
Meta descriptions = SEO “ad copy”
Include a concise description of the tool, a clear benefit, and a call to action, like Google ad copy!
The actual content of your page itself is, of course, very important. Different types of pages will have different “jobs” – your cornerstone content asset that you want lots of folks to link to needs to be very different than your support content that you want to make sure your users find and get an answer from quickly. That said, Google has been increasingly favoring certain types of content, and as you build out any of the pages on your site, there are a few things to keep in mind:
How you mark up your images can impact not only the way that search engines perceive your page, but also how much search traffic from image search your site generates. An alt attribute is an HTML element that allows you to provide alternative information for an image if a user can’t view it. Your images may break over time (files get deleted, users have difficulty connecting to your site, etc.) so having a useful description of the image can be helpful from an overall usability perspective. This also gives you another opportunity – outside of your content – to help search engines understand what your page is about.
You don’t want to “keyword stuff” and cram your core keyword and every possible variation of it into your alt attribute. In fact, if it doesn’t fit naturally into the description, don’t include your target keyword here at all. Just be sure not to skip the alt attribute, and try to give a thorough, accurate description of the image (imagine you’re describing it to someone who can’t see it – that’s what it’s there for!).
By writing naturally about your topic, you’re avoiding “over-optimization” filters (in other words: it doesn’t make it look like you’re trying to trick Google into ranking your page for your target keyword) and you give yourself a better chance to rank for valuable modified “long tail” variations of your core topic.
Your site’s URL structure can be important both from a tracking perspective (you can more easily segment data in reports using a segmented, logical URL structure), and a shareability standpoint (shorter, descriptive URLs are easier to copy and paste and tend to get mistakenly cut off less frequently). Again: don’t work to cram in as many keywords as possible; create a short, descriptive URL.
Moreover: if you don’t have to, don’t change your URLs. Even if your URLs aren’t “pretty,” if you don’t feel as though they’re negatively impacting users and your business in general, don’t change them to be more keyword focused for “better SEO.” If you do have to change your URL structure, make sure to use the proper (301 permanent) type of redirect. This is a common mistake businesses make when they redesign their websites.
Finally, once you have all of the standard on-page elements taken care of, you can consider going a step further and better helping Google (and other search engines, which also recognize schema) to understand your page.
Schema markup does not make your page show up higher in search results (it’s not a ranking factor, currently). It does give your listing some additional “real estate” in the search results, the way ad extensions do for your AdWords ads.
In some search results, if no one else is using schema, you can get a nice advantage in click-through rate by virtue of the fact that your site is showing things like ratings while others don’t. In other search results, where everyone is using schema, having reviews may be “table stakes” and you might be hurting your CTR by omitting them:
Afford your organic results more real estate by adding markup and schema
There are a variety of different types of markup you can include on your site – most probably won’t apply to your business, but it’s likely that at least one form of markup will apply to at least some of your site’s pages.
You can learn more about schema & markup in WordStream’s guide to schema for SEO.
This guide is intended to serve as an introduction to SEO. For a more in-depth overview of content creation for SEO, the technical considerations of which you should be aware, and other related topics: