The Ultimate Guide to SEO
Search Engine Optimization, or “SEO,” does not have to be a scary “dark art.” By following best practices, remaining diligent, and staying up-to-date in an ever-evolving landscape, it’s a craft you can easily master to get your business growing organically.
There are 3 major types of SEO: on-page – which are things like page descriptions, page titles, and image descriptions – off-page – which cover external influences to your SEO efforts like links and guest posts – and technical – which helps Google crawl, categorize, and rank the pages of your website.
Maximizing all of these efforts can help your business organically scale by helping your content appear higher in search results for the queries most relevant to you and your products or services.
Below, we’ve deconstructed all of the biggest aspects of SEO into a digestible checklist that can help you both understand where to start and prioritize your efforts.
First of All, What is SEO?
At the end of the day, SEO is most easily described as a catch-all term for figuring out how to rank higher on Google for the keywords and keyphrases that people are asking. It can get confusing making sense of what efforts are responsible for what outcomes in the virtual world, so let’s break down what SEO is and what SEO isn’t.
- Search results on Google (or Bing, Yahoo, Duck Duck Go, if you’re into that sort of thing)
- Location-based search results (on Google Maps, Apple Maps, etc.)
- Voice search results (from Alexa, Siri, Cortana, etc.)
- Everything on your website: site copy, titles, images, blogs
- Inbound links from other authoritative websites
SEO is NOT…
- Social Media posts (in does have an SEO impact, but generally speaking, it is not a core focus)
- Search Ads on Google (or any search platform)
- Display ads on Facebook, Linkedin etc
- Press releases (with some exceptions)
This is an oversimplification, but it’s primarily the content, structure, and formatting of your website. With that in mind, let’s take a high-level look at the biggest things you should consider at the beginning of your SEO journey.
What are Keywords?
SEO strategies are sprawling, layered roadmaps, but the nucleus of each and every optimization will revolve around the keywords you research, identify, and thoughtfully place throughout your front-end and back-end content. In other words, keywords are perhaps the most powerful tool in your SEO arsenal for increasing and strengthening your search result rankings.
Keywords while initially they are self explanatory: they are the key words being used in a search query. More modernly these keywords are the actual questions that users are asking Google, meaning they provide the essential bridge between the questions they’re searching for and the answers that your content provides.Therefore, targeting the right keywords has a huge influence over what traffic you’re attracting to your website.
The most effective keywords will be a major theme in the content that answers your customers’ questions. As you’re conducting keyword research and identifying the best targets based on search volume and difficulty, put yourself in their shoes and think about their problems. People generally don’t ask Google about products or services; they’re searching for answers to their questions and solutions to their problems.
There are a bevy of analytical tools that offer incredible insights into keyword volumes and difficulties, competitor rankings, and SEO challenges. This will be a monumental part of your larger content strategy but plays a huge role in everyday SEO success as well. Research thoroughly and select your 3-5 keyword targets wisely!
The Secret to Effective Keywords? Competitive SEO Research
The only way to build a thoughtful keyword strategy is by doing your homework. In this case, homeword is a deep dive of all the keywords relevant to your products or services, as well as an analysis of your competitors’ SEO performance, traffic analytics, and keywords. Without a thorough understanding of search volume or ranking difficulty for specific keywords, you’re driving blind.
Performing competitive SEO research not only allows you to identify the keyword or content opportunities that are driving a majority of their traffic, you can also strategically see what questions or markets they’re not targeting so that you can exploit those opportunities.
What Are H1 Tags?
H1 tags, or “Title Tags,” are the title of your webpage! This is the very first thing that both people and search engines will read on your webpage, or if it’s the H1 of your homepage, the first thing they’ll read on your entire site.
H1 tags need to be accurate, optimized, and concise. Your homepage title should essentially serve as your brand promise, or a full-picture summary of what your business does. From an SEO standpoint, Google attributes a lot of weight and relevance to these tags, so it’s crucial that keywords be included on every single page.
Maintaining relevance is key, so you should be as descriptive as possible within your limited character count.
An example of strong H1 tags for our own digital marketing website could be along the lines of “New Jersey Digital Marketing Agency” or “The Last Full-Service Digital Marketing Agency you’ll ever need.”
What Are Meta Descriptions?
Meta descriptions is an HTML element of a webpage that provides both Google – and potential readers – a brief, 155-character summary of its content. Like H1 tags, these should be relevant to the page’s content and include target keywords, but unlike H1 tags, you have the space to be more descriptive here.
These tags also fill in the “snippet” portion on Google’s Search Engine Results Page (SERP), or the brief 1-sentence description of the links that appear on the page. Google relies on these to not only fill in this snippets, but also to understand the on-page content. Without these, Google is forced to pull content from the page itself, which may not be the most relevant summary.
Meta tags can be hardcoded into your HTML but most CMS platforms have very simple ways of inputting and updating meta tags without requiring any coding. According to a 2019 study by Backlinko, pages with meta descriptions get 6% more clicks than those without.
To continue with our previous example, an example of a strong meta tag that complemented our digital marketing-oriented H1 tag could be: “Get more leads, acquire more customers, and improve your web traffic. As a NJ digital marketing agency, we help with website design and development, content management, and advertising. See why we’re NJ’s #1 SEO agency.”
What Are Image Descriptions?
There are several different types of descriptions that can be added to images on your website, but the most important two are captions and alt text.
Captions are visible to all users and usually appear below web images in small, semi-faded text. These should be short, descriptive sentences that describe what the image is and allows people scanning the page to pinpoint the information most relevant to their query. Captions are generally optional and only need to be included when the image is displayed in a way where a description is relevant.
Alt text is more relevant to your SEO efforts because it’s what Google reads to understand the content of an image. Search engines also use artificial intelligence to broadly classify images, however alt text helps provide a more targeted way for images to appear in search results. When appropriate, be sure to include your targeted keywords in these descriptions as well, and try to keep them to under 125 characters.
What is SSL?
SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, is a security protocol that tells Google and website visitors that your site is secure. Nothing damages trust more than an unsecured website, and Google will punish your domain authority score handsomely as a result.
Without SSL, websites aren’t able to privately relay private and encrypted information between your computer and its destination and your personal information is vulnerable to eavesdropping hacks.
Unsecure websites lose domain authority for two major reasons. 1) Google warns visitors before revealing unsecured sites or content, meaning there will inevitably be a high bounce rate from a lack of trust. 2) Google prioritizes secure websites with SSL in its search results, so secure sites have far greater organic reach than those without.
What are Sitemaps or Indexed Pages?
Sitemaps, or “Indexed Pages,” are essentially website blueprints that tell Google exactly how to navigate your website and organize all of your content.
Google doesn’t just rank your website, it ranks every single page. XML sitemaps are crucial to SEO because they make it easy for Google’s crawlers to find and index your content. This is a comprehensive document will outline all relevant details about your website’s pages, videos, images, other files, and the dynamics between them.
This is a crucial step for search engines to crawl your website as efficiently as possible.
And don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds: many CMS platforms have tools to create a site map. There are also third party downloadable tools that can help generate sitemaps for you as well.
Get Setup on Google Search Console & Google My Business?
Both Google Search Console and Google My Business are two of the platform’s most powerful tools for website analytics and tracking. For anyone looking to better understand their digital performance and identify areas of improvement, these are essential tools to gain insight into your website’s overall health.
Search Console allows you to measure your website’s search traffic, identify technical issues, and optimize your site for Google Search.It offers a better understanding of why your site is performing well or poorly in search results, and also helps you monitor traffic flow and potential errors on your website.
Google My Business is crucial in location-based searches since Google Business listings have to be verified in order to appear in results. This enables your business to appear in maps, allows people to leave your business reviews, and gives you greater insight into performance analytics.
What is Voice Search Optimization?
Voice searches, or or verbally engaging with AI assistants like Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and others, now make up for over 50% of overall searches.
Voice search optimization, therefore, ensures that your website is easy for search engines to find when a user verbally asks them a question. This requires Google to have a clear understanding of what your site is discussing, sharing, or offering to provide users with helpful and relevant search results, which are often read back to the user aloud.
What is Structured Data?
Structured data, or “Schema,” is best described as Google’s “native language,” or a specific code that helps search engines better identify relevant content to match with the most appropriate search queries. The better Google understands your content, the more effective it is at interpreting your content, which means a healthier, organic SEO boost since Google can better match you to a searcher’s intent.
This detailed data also provides the information in Google’s “Rich Snippets,” or search results that provide greater detail into your webpage and its content. When a website is properly marked for schema, Google should provide all details about what your business does, where it is, and what it offers. Websites with schema will organically rank higher than those without, meaning this is an essential part of your SEO efforts.
What is Link Building or Backlinking?
“Domain authority” is the broad metric used to measure the strength of a website and the number of healthy backlinks your website has will have a tremendous effect on your website’s score. The more internal backlinks from high domain-authority websites you have, the more credibility and authority Google assigns your website. In other words: higher domain authority = higher Google rankings.
Inbound links from third party websites offer your site more link juice, and signals to Google that you’re a relevant, trustworthy source of information. Conversely, inbound links from untrustworthy or spammy websites will damage your domain authority and lower your credibility to search engines.
More simply put, having a backlink is seen as a vote of confidence in your content, so the more legitimate links you have, the more credible and authoritative your content becomes.
What are Core Web Vitals?
Core Web Vitals shows you how each of your webpages is performing and provides detailed information about each URL’s health. These is an entire topic itself, but for the purposes of a high-level SEO understanding, let’s focus on 3 main areas:
Slow pages cause higher bounce rates, plain and simple. In a world where you’re vying for your website visitors’ precious few seconds of time, if it takes more than 2 or 3 seconds for a page to load, most users lose patience, trust, or interest. According to Google research, 53% of mobile users will leave a site that takes longer than 3 seconds to load.
Slow pages can also signal to Google that there’s an issue with a site, perhaps even a virus, and Google will rank your seemingly problem-prone site lower as a result. A quick-loading site not only offers more seamless usability for your visitors, but it allows robots in search crawlers to scan your site faster when a query is made online.
Core Web Vitals will provide a host of analytical data and metrics to help you measure page performance and fix any technical errors. Ensure your SEO management allots time to audit webpages for anything broken or not working properly before they grow into more problematic issues.
Search engines change their rules constantly and if you don’t adapt to them, it can cause errors. Without due diligence, things will inevitably break.
Analyze your performance! To have a comprehensive understanding of what’s working and what isn’t, you need a reliable feedback loop and a way to understand your top performing content, keywords, backlinks, third party channels, etc. so that you can continue to scale and grow your SEO efforts.
There are plenty of third party tools that can offer all of this helpful data for you, but the onus is on you to make checking and adjusting your performance part of your regular SEO due diligence.
Is “Duplicate Content” OK?
Duplicate content is a big SEO no-no. Search engines will only ever choose one of the pages or pieces of content to rank, so you’re effectively forcing Google to rank them for you, regardless of who created the content. In essence, you’re stealing from yourself!
It will also have an adverse effect on the trustworthiness Google affords your site, which will have a negative effect on your larger domain or page authority.
Make sure not to copy content from any third party sites either. Plagiarism and Google trust aside, only one of those pieces of content will ultimately be ranked and it likely won’t be yours.
Nobody would blame you if you felt overwhelmed by the sprawling, evolving, indefinable world of SEO. It’s a massive term with seemingly unending effects on the performance of your marketing efforts.
With a basic understanding of all the key topics we’ve covered above, you’re already well on your way to becoming your own content master. It’s not as scary as it seems, and armed with these fundamental best practices, you’ll already be more knowledgeable and better-prepared for our digital future than most SMBs.
Now put on your SEO armor and go take over the internet!
Interested in taking your SEO efforts to the next level?
Keep reading here to find out how you can continue upgrading your SEO efforts and boosting organic traffic to your website. We explain how to develop target personas, or comprehensive bios of your business’ key audience members; social media configuration and tracking; and responsive design can further boost engagement and conversions across your business.
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