The ultimate guide to getting started with SEO
SEO basics for beginners
You know that scene in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy arrives to meet the wizard?
The wizard is a booming holograph from behind smoke and fire while Dorothy and her entourage shake in fear. But Toto outs him by revealing the less-than-intimating man behind the curtain.
Search engine optimization, or setting up your site to rank higher on search engines, can feel a little bit like meeting the Wizard of Oz. It seems technical and overwhelming, but the basics of setting your site up to be found on search engines doesn’t have to be that complex.
While there are many technical higher-level aspects of SEO, there’s a lot you can do before you get into the technical minutia that will influence how you get found.
And it’s worth your time.
There are an estimated 5.6 billion searches on Google a day. (That doesn’t even include other search engines such as Yahoo or Bing.)
The other thing that is unique about SEO is that, unlike social media, where someone might accidentally come across your business, on Google they are actively looking for the solution to the problem you solve.
People who are searching for a solution convert at higher rates than people who stumble across something that might be helpful to them at some point.
You want to be there when someone is looking for you.
Google's algorithm has gotten more sophisticated over time, so what used to work doesn't always anymore. In fact, Google is in the process of releasing an update that puts more weight on user experience than ever before.
This update, known as Google Page Experience, focuses on things like website load time, mobile friendliness, security - basically, things that make your site more pleasant to use.
Given this update, in addition to everything else the algorithm factors in, how do you even get started?
In this post, I am giving you a comprehensive guide on how to do basic SEO so you can start showing up in search.
1. Make sure your site is connected to Google Search Console and Google Analytics.
These are free tools that help you monitor your site traffic and SEO. Even if you aren’t ready to use them yet, make sure you set them up so you can start collecting the data.
Knowing where you stand currently is crucial to helping you improve your site’s rankings on Google.
This process can be a little involved, especially at the moment because Google has created a new Analytics version (called Google Analytics 4) that isn’t as fleshed out as the old version yet (Universal Google Analytics). This means that you need to create a tag in both the old and new versions, and link them together.
Here is a video tutorial that walks you through these steps for Google Analytics.
Here is the tutorial for setting up Google Search Console.
This will be the most technical thing you do in this tutorial. So don’t get discouraged if it seems tricky. Just take the tutorials one step at a time.
2. Do your keyword research.
In order to set up your site to get found on Google search, you want to know what people are searching for related to your niche. This takes a little research.
It also takes a little higher-level thought about what a user is looking for. Google doesn’t just care about delivering results with keywords in them.
It cares about user intent. This means giving the user the results that they are looking to find, not just the ones that have the right words in them.
For example, if a user searches for the word “apple,” it’s more likely they are looking for the computer and phone brand than they are looking for information about the fruit. So make sure you are considering this when you are choosing your keywords.
There are a variety of online tools that allow you to research keywords. SemRush, Ubbersuggest, Ahrefs or Moz, are sites that will show you information about keywords and related keywords. They are paid subscriptions, however, most have some free tools available. You can also use Google Trends or just do Google searches and see what pops up at the bottom of the page in the “related searches” list.
Start by making a list of umbrella content topics that are related to your niche. For example, if you are a health coach, think about your areas of expertise. This could be “healthy eating,” “healthy recipes,” “hormone imbalance” and “exercise.”
Next, you want to get a little more specific on these topics to find keywords that will help your site get ranked. Start with one topic at a time and do some research on the related keywords. There are two kinds of keywords to focus on. First are head terms, which are shorter and broader that are typically one to three words. The second is long-tail keywords, which are phrases that are much more specific and include several words. Ideally, you want to choose a mix of both head terms and long-tail keywords to include in your content.
When I am doing keyword research, I like to set up a Google sheets document to keep track of the search terms I find that are best to use on a site.
There are a few things I like to note.
In column 1, I write a keyword or phrase. In the next column, I write the search volume. This is the number of times people have used that keyword or phrase in a month.
In the third column, I write the Cost per Click, and finally I include the SEO difficulty.
Cost per click is how much businesses are paying for clicks of that keyword when they purchase advertising. SEO difficulty is how competitive that keyword is.
When a keyword is generic and highly competitive, it might not be worth your time to attempt to rank for that. It is unlikely that you will be able to get to page one for keywords like that if you are a small business.
However, there are many variations you can attempt to rank for.
Here are the things I look for when I’m searching for ideal keywords to try to rank for:
A mid-range search volume (Not too high and not too low).
You don’t want to try to rank for keywords that no one is using. You may come up on page one for them. But if they are never searched, no one will find you. At the same time, keywords that get hundreds of thousands of searches each month might be too competitive.
A healthy cost per click.
Typically, the higher the cost per click, the higher that keyword converts.
An easy or moderate SEO difficulty.
This means you will have an easier time ranking for a keyword because there is less competition.
If you are a photographer, for example, going after the search term “photography." wouldn't be the best strategy. That keyword has a volume of 301,000 monthly searches, a cost per click of $2.89 and a search difficulty of 81, which is high.
You will want to get much more specific about the kind of photography you do and even the location you do it in.
The keyword “maternity photography,” however, gets a volume of 8,100, a CPC of $2.06 and a search difficulty of 30. Don’t stop here though. Keyword tools can give you related keyword ideas you can use, such as “how much do maternity photos cost” and “maternity photography ideas poses.”
3. Add keywords to your page titles and meta descriptions.
Page titles and meta descriptions are what users see on Google when they search for a keyword. It gives them a description of what the result is about and helps them know if they should click on it.
Once you get a healthy list of keywords that fit your niche, you will choose a pillar head term. Use those in your page titles. Then you can use related keywords in the writing on each page and in what is called the meta description of your page (which is the short paragraph that comes up in search results that tells people what the page is about.)
Adding your keywords to your page titles and meta descriptions not only tells Google you have a result that fits a search, but also helps tell the users you have something for them.
Make sure each page of your site has a unique page title and a unique meta description.
4. Add your address and location to the footer of your site.
This gives Google an idea of where you are located, so you start coming up in location based searches.
If you provide a product or service that people can use nationwide, don’t skip this part. It still helps Google have more information about matching visitors up with relevant results.
5. Make sure your site is easy to use and mobile friendly.
Google's update is focusing on user experience more than ever before. Make sure things are intuitive, there are no popups on your mobile site, your site uses https instead of http, and that you don't link to or have any spammy content.
6. Work on creating backlinks to your site.
Backlinks are when another website links to your site. This tells Google that you are credible and worth referring traffic to. It’s like another site is vouching for you. You want to make sure your backlinks come from other credible sites.
Start simple by adding your site to all of your social media accounts and using Pinterest to refer traffic back to you.
Then branch out by doing collaborations with other businesses in related but non-competitive industries. You could write a guest post that links back to your site, or appear in their podcast. Or you can ask them for a backlink in a blog post they are doing or on a partnership page.
Publish share-worthy blog content or studies. Write testimonials for another company you have worked with. Seek out PR with the media and ask for them to link to your site if they feature you. Get creative and approach other websites with a proposal that benefits them as well.
7. Create quality content on your site.
Content gives you more opportunity to use relevant keywords and gives Google something to crawl. If your site has few words on it, Google won’t know how to categorize your site or what to rank it for.
Write a blog post and do some keyword research related to that topic. Make sure you are including a variety of keyword phases, including some quality long-tail keywords.
8. Check out what your competitors rank for.
The tools I mentioned above allow you to do competitor research. Knowing what competitors come up in searches for can signal some ideas on what you could also go after. It also shows you the gaps in what keywords they might be missing.
9. Hit the basic Google algorithm check boxes.
There are a few basics that Google checks to make sure your site is legitimate.
Does this site have social media accounts connected?
Does it have a contact page?
Does it have an about page?
Make sure you are including these things on your site.
10. Get user-generated content.
In general, testimonials are great social proof for your business. But they also help with SEO. Try hooking up your site to a Yelp review page or Google reviews and displaying those testimonials on your site.
11. Add alt tags to images.
Google can’t crawl photos. Unless you tell google what is in them, they aren’t helpful to your site’s SEO.
Alt tags are written text that are added to photos on the site’s backend that help tell Google what is in them. These were designed to help those who are visually impaired use websites. But it also has a benefit for your site’s SEO as well.
How you add alt tags depends on your website platform, but it is usually something you add when you upload a photo or a phrase you can insert after you place it on the page.
12. Make sure your site loads fast.
If your site takes forever to load, people are more likely to leave. That isn't a great experience for a user who was seeking information your site provided.. I wrote another blog recently on improving your site speed here.
13. Make sure you put some work into your branding.
This one might come as a surprise, but as the algorithm has gotten more sophisticated, Google has gotten away from purely logistical and technical factors to begin focusing more on brands. It gives brands preferential treatment because they come with credibility and recognition. People are creatures of habit. They go for what they know. If an established brand and a generic website wrote the exact same blog post, the established brand would come out on top.
So building a brand should be a focus of your business from an SEO perspective as well as a number of other different reasons I spell out in this post.
14. Avoid black and gray hat SEO practices.
As long as there is SEO, there will always be attempts to cheat the system. Google knows that, so it penalizes sites that use so-called black hat practices.
These include things like “keyword stuffing,” where sites just fill their content with as many keywords as possible, whether they are relevant or not.
It also includes buying backlinks or using things such as “private blog networks” - buying up expired domains, writing content and linking back to the original site.
If there is any attempt to cheat the system, it probably falls under the umbrella of black hat.
Google wants to give users results that are authentic and relevant. If someone you hire to help you with SEO is using a black hat practice, run the other direction.
Ultimately, if the technical aspects of SEO confuse and overwhelm you, focus on this one thing: provide quality, helpful content to real people. If you add in a little keyword research and gain a backlink from time to time, this will only boost your efforts. Google will reward sites that are serving their users well.