If you already have a solid understanding of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and why it is important you can skip to Chapter 2 (although at the end of this chapter we would still recommend skimming the Google and Bing best practices; they are useful refreshers).
The chapter will help everyone else build their basic knowledge and confidence in SEO as you move forward.
What is SEO
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It is the practice of increasing both website traffic quality and quantity as well as access to your brand through non-paid (also refers to as “organic”) search engine results.
Following the acronym, SEO is about people as much as it is about the search engines. It’s about knowing what online people are looking for, the answers they’re looking for, the words they’re using and the kind of content they want to consume. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you to connect with the people who search for the solutions you provide online.
If understanding the intent of your audience is one side of the SEO coin, delivering it the other in a way that search engine crawlers can find and understand. Expect to learn how to do both in this Guide.
Search engine basics
Search engines are machines for answers. They scour billions of content pieces and test thousands of factors to determine which content is most likely to answer to your query.
All of this is done by search engines by discovering and cataloging all of the content available on the Internet (web pages, PDFs, images, videos, etc.) through a process known as “crawling and indexing,” and then ordering it by how well it matches the query in a process we refer to as “ranking.”
Which results of the search are "Organic"
As we said earlier, organic search results are those that are earned, not paid for (i.e. not advertising) through effective SEO. These used to be easy to spot-the ads were clearly labeled as such and typically the remaining results took the form of “10 blue links” listed below. But how do we find organic results today with the way search has changed?
Today, the results pages of search engines— also referred to as “SERPs” — are filled with both more ads and more dynamic formats of organic results (called “SERP features”) than we have ever seen. Several examples of SERP features include snippets (or answer boxes), people Ask boxes, image carousels, etc. New features of SERP continue to evolve, driven in large part by what people are looking for.
For example, if you’re looking for “Denver weather,” you’ll see a weather forecast directly in the SERP for the city of Denver instead of a link to a website that might have that forecast. Then, if you’re looking for “pizza Denver,” you’ll see a “local pack” result consisting of pizza places in Denver. Okay, right?
It is important to remember that advertising makes the search engines money. Their aim is to help solve queries from searchers (within SERPs), keep searchers coming back and keep them on the SERPs for longer.
Some of the Google SERP features are organic, and can be influenced by SEO. These include featured snippets (a promoted organic result that displays a response inside a box) and related questions (“People Also Ask” boxes, for example).
It is worth noting that there are many other search features that can’t usually be influenced by SEO although they aren’t paid ads. Also, these features include data obtained from proprietary data sources including Wikipedia, WebMD, and IMDb.
Why SEO is so important
Although paid ads, social media, and other online platforms that generate traffic to websites, search engines drive most online traffic.
The results of organic search cover more digital real estate, appear more trustworthy to savvy searchers, and receive more clicks than paid ads. For example, only ~2.8 per cent of all US searches click on paid advertisements.
Additionally, SEO is one of the only online marketing channels that can continue to pay dividends over time when set up correctly. If you provide a solid piece of content that deserves to rank for the right keywords, your traffic will snowball over time, while advertising needs constant funding for delivering traffic to your site.
Search engines are becoming more intelligent but they still need our help.
Optimizing the site can help to provide search engines with better information so that your content can be properly indexed and displayed within the search results.
Do I need to hire a SEO professional, consultant or agency?
You may do some simple SEO yourself, depending on your bandwidth, willingness to learn and the complexity of yourwebsite(s). Alternatively, you can find that you’d prefer an expert’s help Anyway it is okay!
It is important to know that many agencies and consultants “provide SEO services,” but can vary widely in quality if you end up looking for expert help. Knowing how to choose a good SEO company can save you a lot of time and money, because the wrong SEO techniques can do more harm to your site than they can help.
White Hat vs Black Hat SEO
“White hat SEO” refers to the SEO techniques best practices, and strategies that follow the rule of the search engine, the primary focus to give people more benefit.
“Black hat SEO” refers to spam / fool search engines techniques and strategies. While black hat SEO can work, it poses a tremendous risk of penalizing and/or de-indexing websites (removed from the search results) and has ethical implications.
Penalized websites have had businesses bankrupted. It’s just another reason to be very careful when choosing an expert or agency for the SEO.
Search engines share similar objectives with the SEO industry
Search engines want to help you make it successful. In fact, Google even has a Starter Guide for Search Engine Optimization, much like the Beginner’s Guide! We are also very supportive of SEO community efforts. Digital marketing conferences–including Unbounce, MNsearch, SearchLove, and Moz’s own MozCon–host engineers and representatives from major search engines on a regular basis.
Google supports webmasters and SEOs by hosting live office hour hangouts through their Webmaster Central Help Forum and their webmaster. (Bing, sadly, shut down their Webmaster Forums in 2014.)
While webmaster guidelines vary from search engine to search engine, the underlying principles stay the same: Don’t try to trick search engines. Instead, provide an excellent online experience for your visitors. To do so, follow the guidelines of the search engine and comply with user intent.
Guideline for Google Webmaster
Make pages primarily for users, not search engines.
Don’t deceive your users.
Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging
Things to avoid:
Automatically generated content
Participating in link schemes
Creating pages with little or no original content (i.e. copied from somewhere else)
Cloaking — the practice of showing search engine crawlers different content than visitors.
Hidden text and links
Doorway pages — pages created to rank well for specific searches to funnel traffic to your website.
Guideline for Bing Webmaster
Provide clear, deep, engaging, and easy-to-find content on your site.
Keep page titles clear and relevant.
Links are regarded as a signal of popularity and Bing rewards links that have grown organically.
Social influence and social shares are positive signals and can have an impact on how you rank organically in the long run.
Page speed is important, along with a positive, useful user experience.
Use alt attributes to describe images, so that Bing can better understand the content.
Things to avoid:
Thin content, pages showing mostly ads or affiliate links, or that otherwise redirect visitors away to other sites will not rank well.
Abusive link tactics that aim to inflate the number and nature of inbound links such as buying links, participating in link schemes, can lead to de-indexing.
Ensure clean, concise, keyword-inclusive URL structures are in place. Dynamic parameters can dirty up your URLs and cause duplicate content issues.
Make your URLs descriptive, short, keyword rich when possible, and avoid non-letter characters.
Cloaking — the practice of showing search engine crawlers different content than visitors.
Guidelines for the representation of your local business in Google
If the business you are doing SEO work for is working locally, either out of a storefront or driving to customer locations to provide service, it qualifies for a Google My Business list. Google has guidelines for local businesses like these which govern what you should and shouldn’t do to create and manage these listings.
Be sure you’re eligible for inclusion in the Google My Business index; you must have a physical address, even if it’s your home address, and you must serve customers face-to-face, either at your location (like a retail store) or at theirs (like a plumber)
Honestly and accurately represent all aspects of your local business data, including its name, address, phone number, website address, business categories, hours of operation, and other features.
Things to avoid:
Creation of Google My Business listings for entities that aren’t eligible
Misrepresentation of any of your core business information, including “stuffing” your business name with geographic or service keywords, or creating listings for fake addresses
Use of PO boxes or virtual offices instead of authentic street addresses
Abuse of the review portion of the Google My Business listing, via fake positive reviews of your business or fake negative ones of your competitors
Instead of violating these rules in an attempt to trick search engines into rating you higher, focus on user intent to understand and fulfill When a person is looking for something, they get a desired outcome. Whether it’s an answer concert tickets or a cat picture, it’s their “user intent” the desired content.
If a person performs a search for “bands,” is their intention to find musical bands, wedding bands, band saws, or something else?
Your job as a SEO is to provide users quickly with the content they want in the format they need.
Informational: Searching for information. Example: “What is the best type of laptop for photography?”
Navigational: Searching for a specific website. Example: “Apple”
Transactional: Searching to buy something. Example: “good deals on MacBook Pros”
Googling your desiredkeyword(s) and evaluating the current SERP allows you to get a glimpse of user intent. For example, if there is a carousel of images, it is very likely that people are searching for photos for that keyword.
Evaluate also what content your top competitors have you are not currently. How can you give your website 10X the value?
It will help you to rank higher in search results by providing relevant, high-quality content on your website and, more importantly, it will establish credibility and trust with your online audience.
You need to first understand the goals of your website to execute a strategic SEO plan before you do any of that.
Know the goals of your website / client
Every website is different so take the time to truly understand the business goals of a specific site. This will not only help you determine which areas of SEO you will work on, where to track sales, and how to set benchmarks but will also help you create talk points with clients bosses etc. to start negotiating SEO projects.
What will your key performance indicators (KPIs) be to measure the return on investment in the SEO? What is your barometer, more simply, to measure the success of your organic research efforts? You’re going to want it to be documented even if it’s simple:
For the website ____________, my primary SEO KPI is ____________.
To get you started here are a few common KPIs:
Contact form submissions
And if your business has a local component you are bound to want to also define KPIs for your Google My Business listings. Those could include:
You may have noticed that things like “ranking” and “traffic” weren’t on the list of KPIs, and that is intentional.
“But wait a minute!” You say. “I came here to learn about SEO because I heard it could help me rank and get traffic, and you’re telling me those aren’t important goals?”
Absolutely not! You heard it right. SEO will help your website rank higher in search results and thus drive more traffic to your website, it is only that ranking and traffic are a means to an end. Ranking is of little use if no one click through to your site and there is little use in through the traffic if that traffic does not accomplish a larger business objective
If you are running a lead generation site for example, you’d rather have:
1,000 monthly visitors and 3 people fill out a contact form? Or…
300 monthly visitors and 40 people fill out a contact form?
If you are using SEO for conversion purposes to drive traffic to your site we hope you’d choose the latter! Make sure you have set your business goals before embarking on SEO, then use SEO to help you reach them— not the other way around.
SEO does so much more than vanity metrics. When done well, real businesses are helped to achieve real goals for their success.
This guide will help you in your SEO efforts to become more data-driven. You’ll put more wood behind fewer arrows, rather than haphazardly throwing arrows all over the place (and getting lucky every once in a while).