SEO Made Simple:
A Step-by-Step Guide
Guess how many blog posts are published each day.
Any ideas? Over 2 million. That means 46 people have pressed publish by the time you read these 4 sentences. This makes it kinda tough to stand out. But you have to, if you want to make your blog a successful one, that is. While I often spend 4-5 hours on writing my blog posts, the 10 minutes I spend optimizing each post are easily the most important.
No wonder millions of people google the term “SEO” each month. In a world where over 90% of online experiences start with a search engine, showing up on the front page of Google can be the deciding factor between a business that’s thriving and one that’s, well, bankrupt. But what does SEO even mean? Sure, you know that it stands for search engine optimization, but what gets optimized? Is it the design? Or the writing? The links maybe? Yes, yes and yes. It’s all of them and more. But let’s start this SEO guide at the beginning.
According to Wikipedia, SEO is “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s unpaid results” Alright, let’s translate that to English. Here’s my go at it: Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your online content, so that a search engine likes to show it as a top result for searches of a certain keyword.
Let me break that down even further: There’s you, doing the SEO, the search engine and the searcher. If you have an article about how to make vegan lasagna, you want the search engine (which, in 90% of all cases, is Google), to show it as a top result to anyone who searches for the phrase “vegan lasagna.” SEO is the magic you have to work on your article, in order to make Google very likely to include your article as one of the top results whenever someone searches for that keyword.
Now what does that magic look like and why does it even matter? 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine, 68% of which use Google to do so. Combine that with the fact that the first 5 results in Google get 67% of all clicks, and you get an idea of why search engine optimization is so important. There’s a joke going around the web that highlights how crucial it is to hit the first page of Google: If you ever need to hide a dead body, you should place it on the second page of Google search results.
Your blog post, article or product being linked on any other page of the Google search results than the first is equivalent to not being ranked at all.
But to understand how to show up first in the search engine results, you first need to know how search even works. How Search Works: Now that you have an idea of the basics of SEO, I’ll take a look at some of its components in detail. While Google guards their search algorithm pretty well and not all of the over 200 determining factors are known and verified, Backlinko did a great job of compiling as many as possible of them into one big list. But first, I need to get one thing straight. There are 2 sides of the SEO force, and you need to choose yours, right now.
White Hat vs. Black Hat
As you know, I’m playing the long-term entrepreneurial game, instead of just trying to get a quick buck out of it. It’s the same with search engine optimization. Some people are in it to make a few grand really quickly, others are in it for the long haul.
If you want to work SEO like a get-rich-quick scheme, you’ll probably end up doing what’s called black hat SEO.
This type of SEO focuses on optimizing your content only for the search engine, not considering humans at all. Since there are lots of ways to bend and break the rules to get your sites to rank high, these are a welcome way for black hat SEOs to make a few thousand dollars fast. Ultimately this approach results in spammy, crappy pages, which often get banned very fast, often leading to severe punishment for the marketer, ruining their chance of building something sustainable in the future. You might make a few grand this way but will continuously have to be on the lookout for search engine updates and come up with new ways to dodge the rules.
White hat SEO, on the other hand, is the way to build a sustainable online business.
If you do SEO this way, you’ll focus on your human audience, trying to give them the best content possible and making it easily accessible to them, by playing according to the search engine’s rules. (Inbound Marketing Inc. does a great job at explaining the difference) Needless to say, you’ll only hear and see me talking about white hat SEO. Choose your side of the force wisely, young Padawan.
Cleaning inside your house and outside: On-Page SEO vs. Off-Page SEO
There are 2 broader categories of SEO: on-page SEO and off-page SEO. On-page SEO concerns all of Google’s ranking factors that are determined by directly looking at the page you try to optimize, such as headlines, content and page structure. Off-page SEO refers to all variables Google takes a look at, which are not exclusively in your own hands, but depend on other sources, such as social networks, other blogs in your industry and the personal history of the searcher.
They’re different, but you need to get both right, in order to do well with SEO. To give you a better idea of what that means, here’s an example:
Let’s say you have a house with a garden in the front yard, and a little pathway, that leads through your front yard to your house. Imagine these two scenarios:
Scenario #1: Your house is super clean on the inside, but your front yard is a mess.
What happens in this scenario? Well, even if you have the cleanest Mary Poppins-style looking house on the inside, if your garden looks like the forest from Sleeping Beauty, no one will come in in the first place.It’s the same if your page is super optimized around on-page SEO, has great content and looks stunning, but no one gives you credit for it or points to your page. No one will ever see your beautiful masterpiece, because you won’t get any traffic. What about the other way around?
Scenario #2: Your front lawn is neatly trimmed, but inside your house is a mess.
Turn things around and they look similar: Having a neatly mowed lawn will attract plenty of people to come visit your house, but if your living room reminds your guests of a war zone, they’ll leave quicker than you can pronounce SEO. When a visitor leaves your site after viewing only one page, in Google’s eyes that visitor is considered as a bounce. The higher your bounce rate (=number of visitors who leave your site instantly), the worse your page will rank in Google.
That’s why you need to do both on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
You can do several things on your page to get the former right and then even more things outside of that (off the page if you will) to ace the latter. We’ll take a look at on-page SEO first.
There are big categories in on-page SEO, that you’ll need to take a look at. The first and most important, is content.
You’ve probably heard it before: “Content is king.” Bill Gates made this prediction in 1996 and it’s as true as ever today.
(here’s the original article by Bill Gates)
Why? Because a Google search engine customer is happy when he finds the result that serves his needs in the best way.
When you Google “quick and easy homemade mac and cheese,” Google will put all its energy into delivering to you what Google believes is the best recipe for homemade mac and cheese (that takes little time and uses few ingredients) on the entire web. It doesn’t look for the quickest recipe, the easiest recipe, or throw out a bunch of online shops for frozen dinners. Google always tries to give you the best possible experience by directing you to the greatest content it can find.
This means your number one job, to do well with SEO, is to produce great content. Bummer, right? You still have to put in a ton of work. SEO is no different than any other skill — the great results will always come from big effort. Just like the best marketing in the world won’t help you sell a bad product, super advanced SEO will be useless if you’re content plain sucks. Here are the factors that make up great content in Google’s eyes:
While the times where just delivering the best quality content would make you stand out from the crowd are long gone, it is still the starting point for any successful SEO effort (and online business, really). But coming up with great content is not easy, after all, it means you have to become a teacher and a good one at that. Yet, you don’t have to start from scratch. Okdork has published a great guide on how to create great content by piggybacking on what others have done.
Maybe you have your own ideas already, then it might be worth to brainstorm for a while and then come up with a compelling headline to start out with. Once you start writing, make sure you include all the important ingredients of great content in your blog post. Even if you’re a complete newbie, you can always take a professional approach to great content by simply committing to making writing a daily habit and work your way up in increments from there.
Doing your keyword research up front is a crucial part of great content. Since you ideally want to include your targeted keyword in your post’s headline and throughout the article, you need to choose your keyword before starting to write. I’ve covered keyword research extensively on Quicksprout, but if you’ve never done keyword research before, you might want to take a look at Hubspot’s guide for beginners.
Out of all on-page SEO factors, this is the one you should spend the most time learning. You don’t even need to buy a book, Backlinko’s definitive guide to keyword research will do. When I say don’t sleep on this, I mean it. There’s a reason we took the time to compile the top 40 posts on keyword research on KISSmetrics.
Use of keywords
Google has gotten smarter over the years. While you should, of course, use your keyword throughout your content, jamming your keyword into your text as much as possible will hurt your rankings, rather than improve them. Keyword stuffing is an absolute no-go these days.
In 2015, the use of keywords is much more about semantics. Google has gotten so good at interpreting the meaning of the keywords that searchers use, it’s creepy. It not only looks at your keyword but also synonyms of it, to understand what you mean when you type in, say “five guys nyc”. Google will know that you’re probably not looking for 5 random males, but rather guesses that you’re looking for the fast food chain “Five Guys, Burgers & Fries” by looking at similar searches that may include the keywords “burgers” and “fries.”
As long as you make sure your keyword is present in strategically important places (like headlines, URL and meta description), there is no need to mention it tons of times in your text. Just focus on the reader and seamlessly integrate your keyword a few times.
Freshness of content
Hubspot has done a benchmark this year that showed, once again, that posting more frequently improves Google rankings. However, posting new content is only one way to signal Google freshness. There are plenty of things that you can do with already published content to make it more up-to-date. Brian Dean from Backlinko, for example, has only published around 30 posts in 2 years. Yet, he keeps all of his posts up to date by rewriting them and adding new information as he finds it. While it is important to publish regularly, you can still get great results with posting once a month, as long as your content is thorough and in-depth.
Finally, one of the more recent updates provides searchers with direct answers. If your content is written clearly enough for Google to recognize it as an answer to a particular question, it will show up directly beneath the search bar. Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s spam team and often public voice for the latest in SEO and algorithm changes, announced last year that people who were cutting the jargon would be right on track.
That’s why detailed guides and long how-to’s have become more and more popular. So make sure you clear up your writing, fancy buzzwords and complex sentence constructions will neither make you sound smart nor help your SEO game. Moz has listed out all critical aspects you have to keep in mind, if you want to do well with direct answers.
The next big chunk you have to take care of, once you’ve made sure your content is evergreen, is HTML. You don’t have to be a professional coder or get a degree in programming by any means. But, running an online business without knowing the basics of HTML would be the same as driving without knowing what the colors of traffic lights mean.
Thankfully, with places like Codecademy or Khan Academy, there are more than enough possibilities to learn everything about HTML that you need in the blink of an eye and for free. Heck, you can even learn it on the job, by just using a simple cheat sheet, like this one. Let’s take a look at the 4 parts of HTML you should optimize for each and every single piece of content you produce.
Title tags are the online equivalent of newspaper headlines. They are what shows up in the tab of your browser when you open a new page. The HTML tag used for them is called title, but in the case of blogs, it often becomes an h1-tag, which stands for the heading of the first order. Every page should only have one h1-tag to make the title clear to Google. We’ve shown you how to do this at Quicksprout University, but the website First Page Sage has compiled a few more things that you can do to get these right.
Meta descriptions are what shows up as an excerpt when Google displays your page as a result to searchers. It’s easy to spot who’s done their SEO homework and who hasn’t by the meta description. Optimized meta description results will never be cut off and end with “…” or seem like they end mid-sentence. They also often mention their keyword up front. You can learn how to come up with great meta tags in Quicksprout University, and should also check out some good examples to get a feel for descriptions. Don’t overthink this 160 character text snippet though. When writing it, you should keep the searchers in mind, much more so than the search engines.
Schema is the result of a collaboration of several search engines and is basically just a subset of specific HTML tags, which will improve the way your content is displayed on the search engine result pages (also called SERPs). The rating from the above example with Bitcoin was created using Schema, for example. It’s a rather small factor, but definitely good practice. Moz has some good tips on how to get the most out of Schema. When you’re done, don’t forget to test your page to make sure everything runs smoothly.
I’ve previously identified subheads as one of the 7 things every great landing page needs. Not only do they help format and structure your content and give your readers easy reference points, but they also affect SEO. Compared to your h1-tags, h2, h3, h4 and further subheads have less SEO power, but still, matter and should therefore, be used. Plus it’s one of the easiest SEO wins you can get in WordPress.
The third and last part of on-page SEO, that I’ll cover, is site architecture. While this part gets super-techy, super fast, there are a few simple things everyone can and should take care of, to improve SEO rankings. A good website architecture leads to a great experience for the user when he navigates your page, through things such as fast loading times, a safe connection and a mobile-friendly design.
Ideally, you’ll map out the architecture of your site before even buying the domain, which allows you to really get into the head of your user and reverse engineer your way to a great user experience (UX). ConversionXL has published a great guide on how to make sure your UX rocks. You also need to optimize a few things in order for a great “search engine experience.” The more accessible your website is to Google, the better it will rank.
Easy to crawl
Remember the spiders from the introductory video? These are the programs that “crawl” from one page on your site to the next through links. Depending on how well they can index all the pages on your site, they’ll be more likely to report back to Google that you are a good result. The thicker the web of links between pages of your site, the easier it is for the spiders to reach all of them, giving the search engine a better understanding of your site. You can make this job easier for Google by creating a sitemap, using a simple plugin if you’re on WordPress or an online XML sitemap generator.
There are a lot of myths ranking around duplicate content, and how it hurts your rankings. A common mistake is to think everything on your page should be original. Re-posting your content on other websites or publishing your guest posts again on your own site, doesn’t hurt your SEO, unless you do it the wrong (spammy) way. For example, if you re-post your exact same content to a big outlet like Medium, it might hurt your rankings, because Google indexes your Medium article first, as it’s on the more authoritative domain. In order to make sure you don’t get penalized, educate yourself about 301 redirects, which are a great way to handle duplicate content. I’ve also put together a guide to show you how to address the issue with rel=canonical tags for links on Quicksprout.
Let’s face it, if your page isn’t mobile-friendly, you lost. Consider this: Over 500 million Facebook users (that’s half a billion, just for clarity) ONLY uses facebook through their mobile phone on a daily basis. While there are several ways to make your page mobile-friendly, I recommend you start by checking with Google’s tool how you hold up right now. Most WordPress themes are mobile-friendly from the get go these days, and if not, you can always install a plugin to take care of it. You can also just implement Google’s suggestions from the tool yourself or hire someone to make the changes.
Don’t fool yourself, you know just how important this is. Remember how angry you were the last time the wifi took 20 seconds to load a page? Today, we value our time more than anything, and long loading times can absolutely kill your conversions. Again, Google has a tool to easily test this. Another way to see if you’re doing okay is to use this free test by Pingdom. ConversionXL has identified a few low hanging fruits for increasing your website speed and at Crazy Egg we show you how to squeeze out that extra second to improve your user experience.
Keywords in URLs
Including your targeted keywords in the URLs of your blog posts is a can’t miss. You shouldn’t squander those SEO points. You might have to change the structure of your permalinks on WordPress, and should certainly keep your human users in mind, but including your keyword in your URLs is a no brainer.
HTTPS and SSL
Google announced that security is now considered a ranking signal. There are two common security protocols: HTTPS (a secure version of HTTP) and SSL (Secure Socket Layer). Both of the works and are worth considering, even if they won’t up your SEO game too much. Moving from a non-secure connection to HTTPS or SSL is a bit of work, but worth your time. If you’re starting out with a new domain, consider purchasing it as an option from your domain registrar or web hosting service. Pro tip: You can save a lot of on-page SEO by using a tool. For example, if your blog is a WordPress site, Yoast SEO will help you with many of the important on-page elements we just discussed.
Alright, time to step outside your house and take a look at the front yard. I’ll now show you 4 big areas of off-page SEO. If you want a solid overview on one page, consider looking at Shane Barker’s great infographic.
PageRank, the famous formula invented by the founders of Google is by far not the only measure they take when ranking pages in the top 10 search results. Trust is getting increasingly important and most of the recent Google updates have hit spammy and obscure websites. Trustrank is a way for Google to see whether your site is legit or not. If you look like a big brand, Google is likely to trust you, for example. Quality backlinks from authoritative sites (like .edu or .gov domains), also help. There are 4 parts to building trust.
The overall authority of your site is determined by a mix of 2 kinds of authority you can build:
- Domain authority, which has to do with how well known your domain name is (coca-cola.com is very authoritative, for example), and
- Page authority, which relates to how authoritative the content of a single page (for example a blog post) is.
You can check your authority here, based on a scale of 1 to 100. To improve your authority, use the cheat sheet I that came up with to increase your authority without cheating.
Your bounce rate is simply a measure of how many people view only one page on your site, before immediately leaving again. Content, loading times, usability and attracting the right readers are all part of decreasing your bounce rate. The math is simple- the right readers will spend more time on a site that loads fast, looks good and has great content, right? Video is another great way to do so, but you need your video content to stand out and deliver (Buffer’s 5-step process is a great place to get started with video).
Remember the times before young entrepreneurs like me were all the hype? Who were the most respected businessmen around?
The old guys. The Jack Welchs and Warren Buffetts of the world.
With domains on the internet,
it’s similar. Domain age matters, if only a little. If you haven’t got your site up and running yet, consider finding an affordable, expired domain and using it.
As mentioned above, having a brand or personal identity online is a huge trust signal for search engines, but it takes time to build. You know you’re a brand when you google yourself and something like this pops up. You don’t have to have a brand name, creating your personal brand works just as well. What’s more, building brand signals prevents you from future penalties through Google updates.
Just by how far you’re into this search engine optimization guide already shows you that the common conception of “backlinks are everything” is just wrong. hey’re only a part of SEO, just like all the other areas I covered already. There are plenty of ways to get backlinks. But, no matter what you do, don’t just wait for people to link to you, that’s a fool’s game, you’re going to have to take initiative and ask for them. Consider these factors when trying to get backlinks:
Quality of links
While links are not everything, when looking at links, their quality is everything. The quality of your links matters much more than the amount of links you have. Building quality backlinks is all about reaching out to the right sources and offering value in exchange for a solid link, and I show you tons of ways in our advanced guide to link building.
The anchor text is the text used when other sites link to you and yes, it matters. Differentiating between the types of anchor text is part of the nitty gritty, but a good rule of thumb is:
The more natural the link text sounds, the better.
Here’s an example: You could either link to a guide on anchor text best practices by linking the word “click here” or just naturally mentioning it in the flow of your writing. The second category is called contextual backlinks, and that’s the one you should strive for.
Number of links
Lastly, the number of total links you have does of course matter as well, and you need to over time build high quality backlinks at scale.
The third category of off-page SEO, that’s worth taking a look at, is personal factors. While most of these are out of your control, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of reaching a certain audience.
All searchers are shown results relevant to the country they’re in. Open times of recommended stores and restaurants are displayed in your time zone.
(Country — it’s all about where you’re from)
Words are interpreted differently. Someone searching for “comforter” in the US will be displayed blankets for their bed, whereas someone in the UK might see pacifiers because that’s what the term means there. A way to signal Google that you want to target certain countries is of course including them as keywords, but definitely, ask yourself is it worth it to go multinational.
The geo-targeting goes even further, down to a city-level. That’s why, when you google any fast food chain, you are usually shown results from right around the block. Again, using city names as keywords helps, but don’t paint yourself into a corner or you’ll end up being considered as a local authority only.
If the searcher has been on the same page before or even just visited your site in general, you’re more likely to show up, because Google thinks you’re a relevant result for the searcher.
Do you have a YouTube channel or a Google Plus profile for your brand? If so, the more people like you, the better. When google recognizes that you’ve signaled you like a brand on social networks, it’s more likely to show you results from those brands or even personal contacts you have.
Lastly, let’s take a look at the social factors of off-page SEO. Besides social signals directly from the searcher, there are other ways good results on social media will help you rank better. Whether that’s directly through more links, or indirectly through a PR boost, social matters. I’ve done several case studies on Quicksprout, proving social media is well worth your time.
There are 2 main factors of influence.
Quality of shares
As with the quality of backlinks, who shares matters more than how often. Google recognizes influencers and when they share your content that share has more SEO juice than your neighbor’s. A great way to get influencers to share your content is to give them a heads up before you even publish, or still better, include them by quoting or interviewing them. Of course, you should also tell plenty of online celebrities who are already interested in your topic. You can find a similar article (maybe one you fund one during your research), plug it into a tool called Topsy, and find influencers who shared it. Then let them know you published a new piece on the same topic.
Number of shares
The secondary social metric is the number of shares. Landing a viral hit is every marketer’s dream, but it is overrated. Okdork’s guide on what it takes for an article to go viral gives you a few ideas what to optimize, but know that “going viral” is mostly a matter of consistently publishing great content. Oh, and promoting your blog post like crazy.
I hope this guide helped you realize that in 2017, search engine optimization isn’t optional anymore. While it doesn’t take a lot of effort to get a few basics right, it might kill your online presence if you don’t. Don’t worry if you’ve already made some SEO decisions in the past that might not have been the perfect choice. Just commit to getting started today. Do your keyword research before you write your next blog post and optimize the basics, like title tags, using your keywords and adjusting your description. And who knows — maybe the next time you press publish, you’ll stand out. After reading this guide, how will you change your attitude towards SEO?
Alan Zibluk Markethive Founding Member