What is SEO?
SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. In basic terms, this is a set of strategies that people use in order to get their website to rank higher in the search results page of all major search engines. Most of the focus is on ranking well in Google, but other engines such as Bing and Yahoo are also affected by SEO.
So, the whole point of SEO is simply to make a certain website or page of a website rank as high as possible in search engines – #1 if possible. You probably use a search engine every day to find information and products that you want to buy, so think about what you normally do when presented with the results page. Do you often trawl through tens or hundreds of pages of results to find the appropriate website? Or do you normally pick one from the first page? Most people do the latter, and that is why it is so important to be seen on the first page of search results for the keywords and phrases you wish to target.
This is all easier said than done, of course, because there are many other people out there who want to take your place in the coveted first page of results. Depending on your chosen subject and keyword, you could be competing with tens of thousands of other websites, blogs, Twitter accounts, and so on, that all want what you want. If you’re selling insurance, for example, then you are going to have to battle it out with people and large companies of “hired guns”, so to speak, who have made it their job to get your competitors ranked higher than you.
SEO services include the “hired guns” we mentioned in the previous segment – they are basically the internet version of mercenaries. They don’t have guns, but they can shoot down your dreams of ranking high in the search engines very easily. They do not break any laws, and they operate in the open in ethical and transparent ways, for the most part. They could be your worst nightmare or, for the right price, they could be your dream team.
Depending on the size of the business you represent, and the profit you can expect to bring in from having a higher exposure to search engine traffic, you could either hire a freelancer or a large SEO agency to do your search engine optimization for you. Of course there are a few different levels in between those two extremes, such as in-house work, but we will discuss those in another segment.
Each different person or agency will have slightly different methods that they use, but the desired end result is basically the same – to get your website ranked higher in the major search engines. These people and agencies will also charge you vastly different amounts, even when quoting you on the same website and keywords to target.
However, as with most other things in life, it is not always the best idea to go with the cheapest service. If you expect to take down the giants in one of the highly competitive search words or phrases by hiring a college kid who is just looking to earn some beer money then you will be very disappointed. On the other hand, if you are running a small business or non-profit operation then you may have no other choice but to hire a freelancer on the cheaper end of the scale for now.
The importance of SEO was hinted at briefly in the opening segments – you were asked to remember how you normally act after typing in your search terms and being presented with the results. You probably never find yourself at page 136 of the search results on Google, right? You most likely never get past page 10 before you either found what you were looking for, or just gave up and searched for some other term. Most people do the same thing.
The internet is a great thing. It’s a great research tool, and it’s great for finding the products and services you wish to purchase. However, one thing that the internet is not so good at is making us patient. We don’t want to search through thousands of pages and miscellaneous websites – that is why search engines were invented. When we’re searching for something, we want to find it fast, and then we move on to the next thing. For the most part, we have a shorter attention span, and we’re not going to spend hours looking for something far back in the search results when there are similar things presented to us on page one.
Bringing potential customers to the places where you can turn them in to actual customers is a lucrative business so, as you can imagine, there are people out there spending quite a bit of time and money on fine-tuning their methods. For example, there have been studies that tracked the eye movement or mouse movement of participants as they went about their usual online habits – one of those being the use of a search engine. These studies found that the vast majority of a user’s attention is paid to the top of the search results page only. Basically, they are looking at the first three results, and some of the paid listings.
These and other studies also show that the top ranked page in the results will get around 20% to 33% of the clicks. Every step below the number one position pulls in a drastically lower amount of clicks. Also, in what may be surprising news to some, the paid placements that are displayed above the “organic” results actually get less clicks than the non-paid results in most cases, and in other cases they’re just equal.
So, how does this all affect you and your business? For a start, it means that if you are not seen on page one of the search results for keywords that should be earning you new customers, then you probably won’t be seen at all. If your website is showing up on page 23, then you basically have the equivalent exposure of a small poster in a dark and dirty alley, in comparison to a large and shiny billboard at Times Square in New York City.
The difference in click rate between organic (non-paid) results and the paid advertisements displayed above also shows us that simply throwing money at Google in the hope of dominating your chosen keyword may not be the best strategy. Unless you are targeting a very competitive keyword, you will most likely be better off trying to rank highly for it the old fashioned way, or at least pay someone else to do it for you, rather than paying Google for an ad spot.
Even if you manage to somehow appease the Google gods, and you find yourself ranked highly for your targeted keywords, it won’t do you much good if it brings in less revenue than what it cost to get you there. Sure, you have something to brag about, because there is a little bit of a prestige factor to it all, but you will probably agree that it’s not as impressive as a healthy ROI will look.
It is fairly easy to track your ROI when you’re talking about paid ad spots on Google or other major search engines. The numbers you see may not tell the whole story there, but that will have to be a topic for another day. For now we’re talking about organic (non-paid) searches, because that is what SEO is all about, and this is much harder to track correctly even in this fancy high-tech world we live in.
You should already be using Google Search Console and either Google Analytics or some other analytics on your website. Yes, you need both the search console and the analytics. Google Search Console allows you to see how many times your targeted keywords were searched in any given period of time and, more importantly, it will show you how many of those people making the searches actually clicked through to your landing page – this is the CTR (click through rate).
CTR, SEO, ROI… these are the three letter acronyms that will keep you up at night. The CTR of your SEO campaigns is very important, and a large factor in whether you get a decent ROI. If there are people searching for your targeted keywords, and your landing page is ranked highly in those results, it will be quite difficult to make a sale or other conversion if they don’t actually click on the link to start with. There are many ways to increase the CTR, such as a strong call to action in the description that shows up along with your page title, but again that is a story for another time. There is only so much we can cover here at one time while allowing everyone to keep their sanity intact.
Now, you have your Google Search Console data, but you also need some kind of analytics package. We will use Google Analytics (GA) for this example because it is so common and very popular, but there are other brands to choose from in this area as well. GA has a lot of powerful features built in to it, but it can all be a bit overwhelming to newcomers who are just opening it up for the first time. If you do decide to hire someone to work on your SEO campaigns you should probably also let them setup your analytics properties as well.
One of the first steps to take inside of Google Analytics is to set up some goals. These goals should track things that are most likely to lead to a sale, lead, or other favorable outcome for your particular situation. It could be that having someone sign up to your email list is a goal, or a potential customer requesting a quote for your services. At the moment there is a maximum of 20 goals allowed for each reporting view, but most websites shouldn’t use that many anyway so it probably won’t be a problem.
There are a few more useful tools available in GA that get a lot more complicated than this, so if you are feeling lost already then this will be a job for the SEO agency you hire unless you feel like digging deeper in to this rabbit hole by yourself.
Geo-targeting and ‘near me’ searching has become very popular for both marketers and consumers alike. In fact, at the time of writing this guide, around half of the people who use local search on a mobile device will visit a store they found on that very same day. This allows the smaller local businesses to compete in some ways with the bigger names that potential customers would generally find if they weren’t searching local.
For example, take a simple search term such as “burgers”, try it out for yourself, and you will probably see a lot of big name brands, and maybe a few recipes. You may even come across the Twitter page for an animated show on the FOX Network that has “burgers” in the name. But the point is, these things aren’t local and don’t really seem that relevant to a hungry person on the go.
This is where local SEO comes in to play. Your very own burger joint could be ranked right up there with the mega-chains when your potential customers are using local search. It’s not going to get there by itself though. You need to tell Google and other search engines where you live, basically.
First of all, you will need to create “local places” pages on each of the three main search engines – Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Doing this will give you a dashboard with which you can set up your local presence with basic details such as your business address, contact information, operating hours, and so on.
Next up, you need to make sure your listing is properly categorized. If your business falls in between a few different categories, or covers a whole bunch of them, then you will need to work within the constraints of each search engine’s system to choose what best described what you do. You should also have plenty of large, high quality images that show things such as your store front, interior shots, product shots, and so on. These may or may not be used on each search engine, but it’s always good to be prepared anyway.
Another important part of local SEO is the review section that will be listed under your result when someone searches. Customers can rate you out of five stars, and leave short comments describing their interaction with your business. You should not attempt to rig the reviews system by submitting fake reviews, or by bribing others to do so with offers of a free meal or other incentives. Instead, you can put a button on your website, or include somewhat of a call to action on your menu / receipt, that reminds your customers that they can review your business online.
Your website itself should include keywords and phrases that are local to your business, obviously. If you own a restaurant in New York City, then you should use those words multiple times on your website. Don’t go overboard with that though, as modern search engine algorithms are smart enough to know when you’re just spamming keywords left and right.
There are many local SEO services that you can hire to do most of this for you, and provide you with a plan for you to set up the parts that they can not do themselves. Some services actually specialize in local promotion over all else, so if you go down that road then you may still need another service for your regular SEO if that will be required as well. However, many local businesses do not need a national or international presence, such as a restaurant or coffee shop, as they have no way of selling products outside of their area. At the end of the day, the best SEO company for small business is the one that has the most experience in what you do, or your particular location, and can offer you a competitive rate.
In contrast with local SEO, national is more about your brand and less about where you are located. There is much more competition for search engine rankings on a national level, so you will most likely end up paying more (or taking up more of your own time to do it yourself) than you would when working at the local level.
The competition aspect of national SEO is not just limited to keywords either, as you will also be competing with large national or even international businesses such as Walmart, Amazon, and so on. These businesses almost definitely have a larger marketing budget than you, so you will need to work smarter to compete in this market, but that is not so much about SEO so we will leave that for you to work out at another time.
Most businesses do not need a truly national SEO campaign. If you have a presence in multiple areas, but not across the whole country, then you will most likely be better off utilizing a hybrid local / national strategy. What this means is that you will split your marketing efforts in to multiple local segments – one for each state or area that your business operates in. If you have a restaurant in New York City and Los Angeles, for example, then you are not really a national business. In this case, a local strategy in those two areas will be much more manageable and a better use of your time and money.
Having a worldwide presence for your business is a lot more complicated than you may have originally thought when you were putting together a plan. The internet is a global thing, so why can’t your business be everywhere too? Well, the fact is that it’s just not that simple. Almost half of the world’s population uses the internet, and that number goes up to around 80% in developed countries. However, they’re not all speaking the same language, and they don’t all have the same wants and needs.
In part, global SEO is about maintaining a website in a way that makes it easier for search engines to understand where you want to be seen and who will be able to use your website. For example, do you ship products to China? Do you have translations for German viewers? And so on.
Another key part of global SEO is understanding that Google is not the king of search engines worldwide. It is very popular in most English speaking countries, but elsewhere there may be an even more popular search engine, depending on where exactly you are trying to spread your brand to. Baidu is the king of search in China, for example, and this country also has its own popular social networking site called RenRen. In Japan, Yahoo is twice as popular as Google, and Yandex is the most popular in Russia, so these are some things that you or your SEO provider will have to deal with.
Now, back to the language issue. It is all well and good to know which search engines are popular in each country that you would like to target, but you also need to speak their language and make sure the search engines know about it. You can’t rely on automatic translations here – these are poor substitutes for real translations made by humans, and your potential customers will definitely notice it. If you can’t spend the money to translate your menus and other important text in to French, for example, then what kind of message do you think that sends your potential French speaking customers? It’s not going to reflect well on your business, to put it mildly.
There are certain tags and other structural website elements that you can use in order to tell the search engines which languages you support. Google likes the use of “hreflang” tags for this purpose, but Bing will only recognize language meta tags at this point in time. In either case, you will want to study more on this topic if you wish to have a truly global presence, but it gets a bit more technical than the scope of this guide allows.
Sticking with the language / country targeting issue for now, you will need to decide on other important structural elements to accomplish this. Will you buy separate domains, such as YourBrandGermany.com? Or will you use separate folders or subdomains? YourBrand.com/Germany or Germany.YourBrand.com? If it is a language you are targeting, rather than a specific country, you would replace the country name with the language abbreviation, such as “de” for German.
Of course there is more to think about than just these few examples. You will need at least a basic understanding of the culture in each country you are trying to target. For a start, you need to know which keywords are appropriate, and other culturally specific elements of your campaign.
As you can see, having a worldwide presence will take a fair amount of work, and in turn these global SEO services generally cost more money to become successful.
As opposed to black hat tactics, which we will also discuss, white hat SEO includes the more legitimate tactics that will allow you to prosper in the long term. To put it in the simplest terms possible: white hat SEO is good, and black hat SEO is bad. It is not just a matter of ethics or morality either, even though that is a part of it, because there are very real and severe consequences to going about this the wrong way. Again, that will be discussed further in the black hat segment of this guide.
One of the most basic white hat SEO tactics is the use of relevant keywords to what you’re actually talking about. If your website is about cooking recipes, and you’re attempting to optimize a page about chocolate chip cookies, then you should obviously focus on keywords that have something to do with it. You don’t want to throw in a whole bunch of unrelated keywords, that may or may not be more popular than chocolate chip cookies, in an attempt to fool the search engines.
Continuing with the recipe example from above, you should also write your main content itself with viewers as your top priority. Again, don’t try to fool the search engines by writing in an unnatural way that would seem odd to a human.
Take this sentence as a (bad) example of overdoing your search engine optimization: “This is my favorite chocolate chip cookies recipe because I love chocolate chip cookies so much, and this is the easiest way to bake delicious chocolate chip cookies at home if you like chocolate chip cookies as much as I do.”
Do you see the problem there? It sounds completely unnatural, because the keywords are so overused to the point of being absurd. So, you need to remember, Google didn’t get to where they are now, a multi-billion dollar company, by being stupid. They know about these tricks, and they will not reward you for using them. They want to give the users of their search engine the best possible results, so that they won’t go off and find a different search provider.
Other than writing and maintaining your website with humans as the top priority, the next best thing you can do is called link building. Most of the popular search engines have some part of their algorithm that basically says “if website A has more links to it than website B, then website A is probably more popular and relevant to users”. Obviously it is a whole lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
However, as we mentioned with the irrelevant keyword issue, there is also such a thing as an irrelevant link. We will stay with the recipe website example for now. If your recipe website has a whole bunch of links from popular websites that deal with life insurance, then these links will for the most part be deemed irrelevant. Basically, it looks like you just paid them for a link, because there really isn’t much of a reason for a life insurance website to be linking to your recipe website. This is not something that you will be punished for though, unless it seems to be happening a lot more than usual or if one of the search engines finds evidence that you have bought links for the sole purpose of SEO. Of course, buying advertising from other websites, or placing advertisements on your own website, is a different story.
This is the unethical part of the search engine optimization game. Black hat SEO can be compared to steroids in professional sports – it will probably give you an edge on the competition in the short term, but it is not a good long term strategy. If you use black hat tactics, or the service you hire uses them, then there is a very high chance that you will be punished when the search engine algorithms catch up to you. And yes, they will catch up to you.
So, you need to decide whether you want to be a flash in the pan before disappearing altogether, or if you want to be in it for the long run. Do you enjoy the feeling of paranoia and looking over your shoulder constantly? If so, put on your black hat and give it a try!
In the past, black hat SEO methods were very crude and simplistic, which also made them very easy to detect. These old methods including things like stuffing a long list of irrelevant keywords on to the bottom of a page, and setting the text color to the same color of the background – white text on a white background, for example. Back then, search engines couldn’t tell the difference, and didn’t notice that the text was basically invisible, and they put value on the keywords in that text. This does not work any longer, and it hasn’t worked for years now.
When the major search engines such as Google changed their algorithm to value inbound links – ranking websites higher in the results when they had a lot of links pointed at them – people started to abuse this as well. They abused this part of the algorithm by spamming guestbooks on websites (before there were comment sections) and then moved on to the comments in blogs that you see today. Anyone who has ever created a website with a comment section will know how this goes – you will get hundreds or even thousands of spam comments with links to all kinds of irrelevant and dubious websites. This black hat method doesn’t work any more, and you will most likely get punished for having so many “low quality links” pointing toward your website.
There are many more black hat tactics that you need to avoid, and you can research those elsewhere, but there are some key points to remember that should keep you safe. For example, you should design your website with viewers in mind. Your viewers should be the top priority, with search engines coming after that in terms of consideration. Also, if you are doing something that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having to explain to someone who works for one of the major search engines, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. It’s a bit like the “I’ll know it when I see it” rule.
The punishment for using black hat SEO tactics varies. Once you have been found out, you could have one particular page or your whole website sent way down the rankings. You could also have your entire domain name, and possibly other web properties that are found to be linked to it, banned from a search engine completely. It is not easy to get back in to the top results, or any results at all, after you have been banned from a search engine. This is why it is mainly seen as a kind of quick fix – a tactic that scammers can use, because they don’t care so much that they are here one day and gone the next.
If you represent a large enough business, with enough of a budget to do so, you could consider hiring in-house SEO as a long term deal that you can keep better track of. It will be easier for you to have someone right there to answer any questions, provide greater accountability, and hopefully catch more of the problems before they become even bigger problems.
For the most part, an in-house SEO team will consist of one to four people, depending on what the budget will allow. The four main positions are SEO strategist, project manager, content developer, and link engineer. Of course you could cut out some of those positions, add more people to the others, or just get one person to do it all if the workload won’t get too much.
As you have probably guessed from this short assessment, in-house SEO can get quite expensive when compared to a freelancer or SEO agency. It may be tough to get a good return on investment from this if your business is not large enough to warrant such expenses.
This is the cheapest way to get your SEO work done. However, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You could hire a single freelancer from a country which has fairly low incomes at what seems like a very cheap price, but you have to be careful here. As we discussed earlier in the black hat SEO segment, your website can be punished by the search engines for the various tactics you use in order to climb the rankings. If you hire a freelancer who uses these tactics, the responsibility is entirely on you. You can’t run to Google, or any other major search engine, and tell them someone else did it, then hope the problem just goes away.
On the other hand, freelancers usually take on a far less amount of clients than an agency, so they can often dedicate more time to your needs as well as spend more time answering questions and formulating your unique strategy.
There are many freelance websites and job boards that you can find with a simple search of your favorite engine. Competition is fierce on these various websites, so you will always find people undercutting the price of their competitors, but don’t be fooled in to simply choosing the cheapest you can find.
This is the middle ground between freelancers on the cheaper side, and in-house SEO on the more expensive side. SEO agencies are made up of professionals in each of the desired fields within search engine optimization – strategist, project manager, content developer, and link engineer.
By hiring an agency, you get access to all of these professionals under one roof, without having to shop around for bits and pieces of a team. These agencies usually have a long track record of verifiable results, and they are in it for long term success. If you have problems at a later date, you will know where to find them, as opposed to a freelancer who may just drop off the grid at any moment.
SEO agencies often take on many more clients than a freelancer does, and obviously much more than your dedicated in-house SEO team, so this could cause problems if you have a lot of questions and a need for constant contact. Or, if you need to drastically change your strategy at some point, an agency may be more rigid than other methods you could have used.
When you do a simple search for “SEO” or some other related terms, most of the top results and paid placements on Google and other search engines are for agencies. So, this is one way of finding one for your business, but you may have more specific needs than that. If you’re going local with your optimization strategy, then add your city to the search term if it’s a big enough city, otherwise try your state. You should also look at their SEO company reviews and any other references you can find.
AdWords: Google’s pay per click advertising. These are the ads you see placed above the top results on any given search.
ALT Tag: Text alternative attached to an image on a website. This text is not seen by regular viewers, and is only there to describe to search engines what the image is about.
Anchor Text: The text in a clickable link.
Authority: A large determining factor in how well your website ranks. Search engines assess your authority by looking at things like the age of your website, the quality of your content, how many links point to your website and which websites are linking to you, and so on.
Authority Site: A website that is deemed to be an authority in the category or industry that it represents.
Backlink: A link pointing to your website from another website.
Broken Link: Any link that does not point toward the intended destination. This could be because the original website has shut down completely, or the domain name has been sold and redeveloped.
Bounce Rate: A measurement of how many people come to a website and then close it without actually doing anything. This may be because they found the website to be irrelevant to their needs, or on the other hand it could mean that they just read the complete article and were satisfied without exploring the website further.
Content: This covers basically everything on a website, from text to images, but is usually used to describe longer pieces of text such as articles or blog posts.
Crawl: This is what search engine “spiders” do. Spiders are automated processes from search engines that scan (crawl) the pages on your website to find information relevant to the ranking process.
De-Index: A term to describe a website or individual page being taken out of the search results. This can happen for a variety of reasons, either temporarily or permanently, but it is usually because of deceptive (black hat) SEO methods.
Domain Age: Just as it implies, this is the age of a domain name. Most search engines value older websites over newer ones.
Duplicate Content: Any content, such as large portions of text, that has already been found on other websites is duplicate content. Search engines do not value copy and paste articles or blog posts, for example, and it will not rank highly in the results.
External Link: A link from a page on your website to a page on a different domain name.
Google Analytics: A free and very popular stats tracking package by Google.
Geo-Targeting: The process of targeting individual viewers based on their geographical location.
Guest Post: A post written for, and published exclusively on, a blog that is relevant to your website’s category or industry. This is often used as a way to get high quality links pointed toward your website.
Internal Link: A link from a page on your website to another page on your website.
Link Building: A term to describe getting more links from other websites to point toward your domain name or individual page. An important part of any SEO strategy.
Link Exchange: In simple terms: “you link to me, and I link to you”. This was once a very popular strategy in link building, but is no longer very effective as search engine algorithms changed.
Long-Tail / Longtail: A key phrase that is quite long and made up of many keywords. For example: “car insurance” as opposed to “car insurance for older drivers in New York”. The latter is a longtail.
Meta Tags: Information that is only visible in the code of your website, and when it appears in other forms on search engine results and elsewhere. Common meta tags include a description, keywords, and title.
Nofollow: A link with the nofollow parameter basically tells search engines that you’re not vouching for the website on the other end of this link, and you don’t want “authority” to flow through to it. This is often used on websites (or parts of a website) with user-generated content, such as comment sections on blogs.
On-Page: This term describes all of the content – text, images, and so on – as well as behind the scenes information such as meta tags.
Off-Page: As opposed to “on-page”, this describes SEO techniques that take place away from the website being optimized. Off-page optimization includes getting links from other websites, for example.
Paid Links: Usually refers to the practice of buying links on other websites for the sole purpose of link building and SEO in general. This is forbidden by all major search engines.
SEM: Search engine marketing.
Spider: An automated process from search engines which scans your website. Related to: crawl.
Sitemap: A page on your website that is designed specifically to help search engine spiders (not actual humans) to find their way around your website and better understand the navigational structure of it.
Traffic: The number of people viewing a website.
Word Count: Number of words on an individual page. It is recommended to have 300 words at the very least on each page that you want to rank highly with in the search results.