SEO was for a long time an area shrouded in mystery to me, so it feels rather strange to be writing a guide on SEO basics for beginners. Despite my training in journalism and PR, I felt unqualified to write content for blogs and websites. I had this idea that SEO consultants or copywriters were geniuses working with code and secret formulas to get sites ranking highly on Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).
However, then I started hearing more stories from people who had been spending a lot of money with SEO firms or copywriters but still not ranking well. They weren’t sure exactly of what was being done to their sites and were also dissatisfied with the content. While containing all the right keywords for search engine crawlers to rank their sites, content pieces lacked any real human appeal.
Through research and training, I’ve certainly become more SEO savvy. If you’re creating content for a website or even if you have outsourced SEO or content writing for your site a basic understanding of the subject is valuable.
What is SEO?
SEO or Search Engine Optimisation refers to techniques, which enable your website to rank higher in organic search results. There are numerous components to improving SEO of your site pages. Search engines, the main these days being Google, examine title tags, image tags, keywords, backlinks, design structure along with even visitor behaviour to determine how highly ranked your site should be in their search results pages.
I like to imagine search engine crawlers or bots, which are programs search engines use to scan website pages to determine what they are about and their importance, as librarians cataloguing information.
The Online Co managing director James Parnwell says SEO consultants often work on upwards of 200 points when optimising a site. If we went into all of them, this post would more resemble a PhD on SEO than a basic SEO guide for beginners. Fortunately, James categorises these different points into four different areas and this guide covers the basics.
- Content Strategy
- Technical SEO
- Local SEO
1. Content Strategy
Hubdo co-founder Helen Nicholls, who leads a team to assist Hubspot consultants and partner agencies deliver SEO for their clients says the quality of content is vital.
“Producing high-quality, informative and educational content should be the key focus of your SEO strategy,” Helen says.
“Remember the number one rule – you are writing for humans first and search engines second.”
According to Yoast, the leading SEO plugin for website creation tool WordPress, you should have a minimum of 300 words on a page to rank well in the search engines.
According to Helen longer posts can do well but are not always that practical.
“It’s a bonus to offer your readers the occasional extra-long blog, say 1500 words but generally, it’s stretching the friendship when clients are asked to submit a 1500 word blog to their website weekly,” she says.
“Weekly or fortnightly blogs don’t need to be thousands of words long, short and sweet can be a great recipe, say 500 to 600 words, then link them to a centerpiece blog and each other,”
“It’s all about getting to the point for Google. Relevant, unique content gives you the greatest opportunity in getting your blog or business site ranking well.”
Part of ensuring the search engines know what your content is all about are keywords (see below), which you should include throughout your content.
“But don’t test your luck and fall into any ‘black hat’ tactics of keyword stuffing– incorporate your single ‘focus’ keyword into your H1 Header, first paragraph, imageALT tag and then once or twice into the body of your content – no more than 4 – 5 times all up in a single 500 – 600 word blog post.”
Still considered one of the vital elements of algorithms the crawlers, bots (or my imaginary librarians) use to classify your site is keywords. Keywords define the topics which your content is about and are words or terms users enter in search engines. Your goal with SEO is to drive organic traffic to your site from the search engine result pages (SERPs). The keywords you choose to target i.e put in your content will determine traffic to your site. It’s important to target the right keyword so your content is found by the search engines and target audience. See our post on SEO keyword research.
2. Technical SEO
Page title tag – Meta Title
A page title tag is the title of your page as read by the search engine. You want to ensure you’re telling Google and your page visitors about the subject of your website so include your keyword/s. The title tags for each of your website pages or blogs should be unique and relevant to the topic.
The meta description is a short summary of the page, like a blurb on a book. A meta description should tell the search engines the content of your page so that when people put in a search term relating to your keyword it will appear in the SERPs.
You won’t see the meta description on your actual website or blog, rather it will show up under your title and URL on the SERPs.
Hubspot has some great tips for writing a meta description including:
1) Use action-oriented language.
2) Provide a solution or benefit.
3) Keep it under 155 characters.
4) Don’t deceive searchers.
5) Make it specific and relevant.
A word of warning using a black hat tactic (see our blog on backlinks) like keyword stuffing in your meta description will not get you ranking any higher. Simply, a meta description should be a concise paragraph about your website.
Header Text – H1
Header text is larger text used for your content and read differently by search engines. It tells search engines that this is important and to take notice. Header text size varies and is usually labelled H1-H6. The most important header text on the page is H1 text and I like to think of it as much like a magazine or newspaper article headline.
I’m not going to go into all the different uses for the various header texts from H1-H6 but H2 is usually for subheadings and H3 subheadings of H2 subheadings. Take note of the format for this post.
James suggests putting your keyword into one or more of your headers. However, you don’t want to overdo it and stuff your keywords into header text.
“It makes sense you mention the main topic of a blog post in one or more headings,” James says.
“However, using your focus keyword shouldn’t feel unnatural or weird and my rule of thumb is that if it does you’re probably trying too hard and even over optimising.”
Headers are a great way of breaking up chunks of text, like in this post. However, Google guru and former head of its web spam team Matt Cutt warns against the overuse of H1 headers, recommending only one on a page.
Alt text is short for alternative text and known also as alt attributes, alt descriptions, image text and alt tags. Alt text is used to describe the appearance and function of an image on a page.
Adding alt text to an image is an element of good web design and principle of accessibility for all web users. The visually impaired with screen readers will be read an alt attribute to better understand an image on a web page.
Alt text displays a description in place of an image if an image file cannot be loaded and finally will provide context and descriptions to search engine crawlers who can’t decipher an image. Matt Cutt also explains alt text in this short YouTube video.
According to Yoast, you should include a keyword into your image or alt tag on a page.
“We’re specifically not saying you should spam your keyword into every alt tag,” Yoast wrote on their blog.
“You need a good, high quality, related image for your posts in which it makes sense to have the focus keyword in the alt text.”
Here’s an example of writing the alt text for an image of our golden retriever puppy for a veterinarian website.
ALT Tag – “Buddy Golden Retriever Puppy with blue collar – XVeterinarians”. The code of the website will translate this to <img alt=”Buddy-golden-retriever-puppy-with-blue-collar-xveterinarians”>
Site and page speed
Google has made it clear that page speed is one of their main considerations in ranking websites. Google defines site speed as “how quickly a website responds to web requests”.
“Speeding up websites is important — not just to site owners, but to all Internet users,” according to Google Webmaster blog on site speed.
“Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there.”
Helen says to increase site speed a good web developer should ensure the speed of your site is good through numerous ways.
“We look at compressing and optimising files and images, leveraging browser caching, reducing redirects and making sure you have a good reputable host just to name a few,” she says.
“No one likes a slow loading site so this really is an important area for not just SEO but for users to experience your brand.”
3. Backlinks and anchor text
Anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink. Blue underlined text is considered the web standard and most common. The backlink anchor text is the anchor text used by other websites linking to your website.
One-way anchor text backlinks
I frequently interview and quote people for my online content. I include a link to their site however, don’t seek a link back from their site to ours. Their expertise is more what I am after to make my content valuable. Mentioning and citing other sites is known as one-way anchor text backlinks. James says one-way anchor text backlinks are sought out. Interviewing James and linking to his company website is an example of a one-way backlink.
“What we call page rank juice flows between one domain to another so the more one-way anchor text backlinks a web page has from websites with high page rank, the better they’ll rank on search engines,” James says.
“Google doesn’t like spammy backlinks though, so if you link to one site on the condition they link to yours then this will not look good.”
4. Local SEO, Google My Business & reviews
If you’re a ‘bricks and mortar business’, local SEO is a vital area of SEO, ensuring you will be found in the geographical area your business operates. Helen says business listing sites or ‘citations’ should be a fundamental foundation of a local SEO strategy. She says any prospective clients or customers are most likely to search for you and a location in their search eg ‘pyschologist Kenmore’.
“Google understands people are searching for local businesses so you’ll receive a higher ranking if you can show you’re both local and relevant.”
“Make sure you have your website optimised for local SEO, register with Google My Business and encourage local reviews.”
An effective SEO strategy is about ensuring the search engines can appropriately categorise your content and ensuring you’re noticed by your target audience. I hope this guide helps take some of the mystery out of SEO so you can develop a strong competitive strategy and ensure your content is seen by your target audience.
There’s some great resources available on SEO for further learning. Some of my favourite include:
Yoast – There’s lots of educational articles on their blog about various elements of SEO and if you want to learn more you can undertake some of their courses.
Brightlocal Blog – Local SEO & Reviews