SEO Guide for Beginners

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You’re an SEO rookie, eh? Well, I want to congratulate you on getting this far. So many small business owners don’t even make it to first base — ever. Yes, that’s right, they don’t get any traffic to their websites either. But that’s not you. You’re here and eager to learn, and we hope this SEO guide will help you to do just that.

Search engine optimisation is a big subject that can get very technical. We’re not going to bog you down with that stuff. This guide is about the basics. The idea is that you walk away with a good understanding of how to get started. You might even have a skip in your step because suddenly SEO isn’t the scary thing that you thought it was.  

Below is an index of the subjects that this guide covers. Click on any of the links to jump to that section. You might want to bookmark this page too, so you can dip in and out as you please.

One last thing before you get stuck in. SEO is a rapidly changing landscape. We’ll add updates to this post to keep the guide in line with best practice.

SECTION 1: What is Search Engine Optimisation?

1.1  How Does Ranking Work?

SECTION 2: The 3 Types of SEO

2.1  Technical Optimisation

2.2  On-page Optimisation

2.3  Off-page Optimisation

SECTION 3: Optimising for Mobile Devices

3.1 Display the Full Version of the Website

3.2 Mobile Site Speed

3.3 Site Navigation

3.4  Website Design

SECTION 4: Local SEO

4.1 What’s the Difference?

4.2  Local Search Ranking Factors

SECTION 5: Monitoring and Improving SEO Results

SECTION 1: What is Search Engine Optimisation?

Search engine optimisation is the process of improving your website’s position in ‘organic’ (free) search engine results pages (SERPs). Organic search results appear below the pay-per-click (PPC) ads at the top of the results page. Ranking high on SERPs makes your website more visible to people searching online for products or services that you provide.  The more pages on your website that have high visibility, the more traffic you are likely to get to your site. Increased traffic means a greater chance of conversions.

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1.1 How Does Ranking Work?

The web pages listed in SERPs arrive there through the process of crawling and indexing. Let’s look at what that means.

CRAWLING

A search engine sends out ‘spiders’ or ‘bots’ to ‘read’ web pages. This is the first stage of a search engine recognising your page. A search engine will crawl a web page for a variety of reasons including:

  • If your XML sitemap (the road-map of all your web pages) points to a new page.

  • You have updated content on a page.

  • If you have shared your web page via Google + or a Google My Business post and it has been ‘Plus 1ed’.

  • The crawler finds your page as part of its routine search for information on the internet.

When a search engine crawls your page and finds that it’s new or valuable, it will schedule it for indexing. Your page won’t be listed on SERPS until indexing has taken place.

INDEXING

So, we’ve established that a web page will only be indexed if the search engine deems it to add value to the internet. We’ll look at what that means a little later, but the key point here is that not all web pages are indexed. When a search engine decides to index a page, this means that it will appear somewhere on its results pages. Before this happens, it uses an algorithm to identify the most appropriate search terms to rank your page for. Search engine algorithms are constantly updated and are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Because of this, SEO practices are always evolving.

Search engine optimisation is the act of using techniques that make your web page satisfy the algorithm. And it’s not only your web pages that the algorithm will examine. When a page is scheduled for indexing, any pages that are linked to it are also crawled.  In fact, bots crawl up to five sites back from your website. The values, or authority, of these pages contributes to your position in SERPs. This is the reason there is so much hype about linking to high authority sites — it gives you good SEO link juice.

SECTION 2: The 3 Types of SEO

Search engine optimisation is a long-term marketing strategy with three dimensions. If you want to be found on Google, you’ll need to pay attention to each form. Getting the balance right will help search engines to crawl and rank your pages.

2.1 Technical Optimisation

This one is for your website developer to get right. Search engines reward websites that are free of errors, well-coded, easy to navigate and easy to crawl and index. Despite being a fundamental aspect of SEO, technical optimisation is often overlooked. If your website isn’t well-designed, search engines will have a tough time crawling it.

So how do technical aspects of your site affect how search engines see it? There are seven key components, so we’ll take a brief look at each.

HYPER TEXT TRANSFER PROTOCOL SECURE (HTTPS)

When you type a website address into a search bar it returns a URL that begins with either HTTP or HTTPS. For example, http://www.fullheightcopy.com or https://fullheightcopy.com. These are technology protocols that allows linking and browsing online. They shape the internet as we know it. We’ll talk about HTTP first.

Standard HTTP is problematic because it isn't secure.  When you are browsing an HTTP website, anyone with the technical knowledge can intercept communications between your computer and the server. This creates an open playing field for hackers. You should never apply HTTP to pages that handle sensitive information, such as contact or bank details.

Any reputable business that takes payment online will have an HTTPS website. These are encrypted using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). HTTPS is rapidly becoming the expectation online. Most browsers now display a “not secure” warning when a user lands on a site that isn’t secure.

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SITE MAPS AND ROBOT.TXT FILES

Spiders don’t just find and index your site by crawling it, they also ready your XML site map.  This is a list of all the URLs on your website — it represents your website’s architecture. Search engines can navigate and make sense of the content on your site if your site map is well structured. 

You can check that your newly published website or page has been indexed successfully using Google Search Console.

Robot.txt files tell search engines if a page should be crawled and indexed. You may have certain pages that you don’t want indexed, such as policy statements and “Thank You” pages.

If you combine a well-designed site map with proper use of robot.txt files, search engines will find it easier to crawl and index your site.

SITE SPEED

Page load time affects the user experience and it therefore affects SEO too. Site speed is currently one of over 200 ranking factors in Google’s algorithm and it’s not likely to go away.

Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool can help you to keep track of your site's performance. It provides a basic analysis of your site’s page speed and recommendations for improving it.

URL SLUGS

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Every page except for a website’s home page has a slug at the end. This is the page's unique address. A slug can begin with the name of a sub-folder, followed by a specific page name or it may contain just a single page at the root of the site.

For example:

https://www.fullheightcopy.com/digital-marketing-tips/ (single page)

or

https://www.fullheightcopy.com/digital-marketing-tips/8-seo-tips-for-small-businesses (sub-folder followed by specific page)

The slug should:

  • Tell users and search engines what the page is about

  • Include the page keyword once

  • Be unique

  • Be as short as possible

  • Separate words with a hyphen

  • Be in lower case

  • Leave out stop words like “an” “is”, “with” and “the” where possible.

Google assigns authority to a site at page level so it's important to avoid changing a pages’ slug once set, if possible. If you do change the slug, the URL loses any authority that it has gained. Also, if anyone clicks on a backlink to the old URL they will land on a 404-error page.

REDIRECTS

There are situations in which you cannot avoid changing a URL or you may want to remove a page from your site. In these circumstances, you should ask your web developer to set up a URL redirect. This does two things:

  1. Tells search engines that your page has moved to a new address. This ‘forwards’ the original page’s authority to the new address.

  2. Seamlessly takes the user to the new page without any confusion.

For SEO purposes, the important redirects to be aware of are:

  • 301 — permanent redirect.

  • 302 — a temporary redirect for situations such as site maintenance.

STATUS CODES

The numbers ‘301’ and ‘302’ referred to above are status codes. These are messages that each page sends to the browser or spider when it requests that page. A status code can affect SEO, so it's important to run periodic checks on every page using a tool such as Screaming Frog.

In addition to 301 and 302 status codes, you should be aware of:

  • 200 — this means that the page is working as it should and the spider should crawl and index the page. The browser will display the page and not the code

  • 404 — the page no longer exists. The browser will return a “404 not found” page to the user. This provides a poor user experience and prevents spiders from crawling the page.

  • 500 — signals a server error. Spiders and browsers cannot read the page — also bad for the user experience.

  • 503 — indicates that a page is temporarily unavailable. Spiders and browsers come back to the page later.

DUPLICATE DATA

You may have heard it said that websites get penalised for duplicate content. Well, that’s not entirely true, so we’ll give you the low down.

Search engines gather information from your page to determine what to display in SERPs. So, if your page is unique and contains lots of information relating to a specific topic it will rank for a keyword related to that topic. However, if your page contains information that is duplicated elsewhere, it doesn’t know which page to show in search results. This means that your page may not rank at all. So, it’s not that duplicate content is penalised, it’s more that search engines don’t know what to do with it.

STRUCTURED DATA

Structured data is markup code that gives search engines extra information about the page’s content. These relevancy signals help to rank your page for your desired keyword. They also give search engines the information to create enhanced search results in SERPs. Rich snippets, knowledge graphs and featured snippets are a few examples.

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2.2 On-page Optimisation

So, we’ve covered the aspects of SEO that your developer should be able to support you with. Now let’s move on to the types of SEO that your website copywriter or content writer will deal with.

Some key search engine algorithm factors that affect rankings include:

  • How relevant the page is to a search term (keyword).

  • How useful and engaging the content on the page is to the user.

  • How the page relates to other pages on the website.

On-page optimisation addresses these aspects of SEO and includes:

KEYWORD RESEARCH

Your goal with SEO is to get potential customers to visit your website. That means you want to rank for search terms (keywords or keyphrases) that your target audience use when searching online. This requires detailed, systematic research. You can find out exactly how to go about this in HubSpot’s guide to keyword research for beginners. Each website page should be hinged around a topic and main keyword. As mentioned earlier, this helps search engines to match your page to a relevant search term.

KEYWORD OPTIMISATION

So how can we make each web page as explicitly relevant to a keyword as possible? By optimising the content on the page.

Firstly, let’s define ‘content’. This doesn’t just refer to the words on the page, but to everything — images, videos and certain elements of code. A page’s chosen keyword needs to appear in specific places relating to this content. We’ll look at each factor in turn.

Title tag

This is the blue title that appears on your listing in search results. Search engines use it to add context to your page for ranking and searchers use it to decide whether to click through to your site. So yes, it’s important to get it right. The keyword should ideally be at the front of the title as search engines place importance here. The rest of the title should be concise but add as much useful information as possible, such as your company name or industry and location. The title tag needs to authentically reflect the page that it represents.

Google displays the first 70 - 71 characters of a title tag. Titles that exceed this length are cut short. If you don’t choose your own title, search engines do it for you by pulling information from your page. This often results in titles with limited appeal or value to the searcher.  

Meta description

Like title tags, meta descriptions give information to both search engine and searcher. They present an opportunity to give a brief and unique summary of the page, along with a call to action. Google will display up to the first 300 characters of your description before cutting it off. This equates to three lines of text.

Important note: Every page should have a unique title tag and meta description. This gives search engines, and people, the information they need to act. 

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URL

We have already talked about the URL earlier in the guide, but here’s a reminder.

Don’t forget to:

  • Include your keyword in the slug

  • Keep it short and relevant

  • Keep stop words to a minimum

  • Make it unique

 

HTML H1 tag

Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) is the code use to structure web pages and its content. Assigning an H1 tag to the equivalent of creating a top-level title in Microsoft Word. It formats the text and makes it stand apart from the rest. H2 tags equate to a level-2 heading, H3 to a level-3, and so on. Every web page should have just one H1 tag and it needs to include the main keyword. The title should also reflect the searcher’s intent as far as possible — to keep their interest. H2, H3 and H4 tags can also contain keywords, but don’t overdo it.

In many cases, your title tag and H1 tag will be the same. This is perfectly fine and will not count as duplication. You may wish to make the H1 tag different from the title tag if doing so aids understanding for the reader.

 

The first paragraph

Include your keyword or keyphrase in the first 100 words of your web page. This gives search engines further signals that the keyword is the topic for the page. Resist repeatedly using the keyword throughout the rest of the copy, however. Search engines penalise site for unnaturally stuffing keywords into text. It makes for a bad user experience. We’ll explore how you feed information to the search engine whilst creating a positive user experience a little later in the guide.

Alt tags and image file names

Search engines can’t read graphics — all they see is the file name. So, an image file that contains the page’s keyword will provide relevancy signals for indexing.

Alt tags are slightly different. They display as text to explain an image to people with visual impairment. Search engines also recognise them as relevancy signals.

Here’s an infographic to help as a quick prompt for on-page keyword placement:

6 Places to Include Your Keyword.

 

OTHER ON-PAGE SEO ELEMENTS

Content quality

Search engines reward sites that provide useful and engaging content to searchers. They take notice of how long users spend on your page, who links to it and whether people engage with your content on social platforms.

You can help your content to deliver a great user experience by:

  • Using headers, subheads and bullet points — when people read online they scan for the information they are looking for. Breaking the text up with headers, subheads and bullets makes this easier.

  • Including semantically related words — keyword variations (synonyms) and words related to your topic. These add context and interest and prevent you from keyword stuffing.

  • Including multimedia content — diagrams, videos, audio players and infographics keep the reader engaged. Don’t forget though, quality matters here too!

  • Making text easy to read — search engines now rank pages on how readable they are. Using a tool such as Hemmingway Editor can help you to perform well here.

  • Writing long-form content — long, detailed blog posts tend to rank well. They give greater context to search engines and offer more value to the searcher. Most high-ranking blog posts on the first page of SERPs are longer than 1,900 words.

Hyperlinks (anchor text)

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A hyperlink, or anchor text, is text within a web page or document that links to another web page when you click on it. Links can be internal (linking to a page within your site) or external link (linking to a page from another site).

Internal links

Using 2-4 relevant internal links on your page will:

  • Help crawlers to find other pages on your site.

  • Help crawlers to understand your site structure and page relevancy to search queries.

  • Make it easier for users to navigate your site and find the information that they need.

External links (outbound links)

Linking to high authority, high quality sites gives search engines the same sorts of information as internal linking. It also makes your page a more valuable resource for the user.

Read 10 Website Copywriting Mistakes and How to Fix Them for more ideas on how to keep your users engaged.

2.3 Off-page Optimisation

Off-page SEO techniques tell search engines about your site’s popularity, trustworthiness, authority and perceived relevance to a search term. The primary means of achieving of off-page optimisation is backlink building.

WHAT IS A BACKLINK?

Any link to your web page from another website is known as a backlink. Search engines use the number and quality of backlinks to your site as a sign of its authority. The rationale for this is that high-quality sites only reference other high-quality sites. Links from low-quality sites can therefore negatively affect your SEO.

LINK QUALITY SCORE

Search engines don’t reveal how they score link quality. However, the linking site’s popularity, its relevance to the topic and its trustworthiness all appear to be factors.

HOW CAN YOU GET BACKLINKS?

Getting high quality backlinks is one of the biggest challenges in SEO. It requires a solid strategy and implementing it takes considerable time. Given several months, your content is likely to gain organic links. However, this isn’t something you can rely on and you’ll probably want to speed up the process.

Here are some sound link-building techniques to build into your strategy:

Guest blogging

Many high-authority sites allow other people to publish relevant and useful posts to their blog.  They will usually allow you to include an author bio and a few links to your site within the content. To find out how to approach guest blogging, take a look at Neil Patel’s Ultimate Guide to Guest Blogging.

Outreach

When creating content, research who else it could help besides your target audience. Influencers in your niche will often welcome high-quality content that they can reference. So, email them and tell them about your amazing blog post. If they like it, they may use it in their next piece or at least share it around for you on social media. 

Broken link building

This is a specific type of outreach. Do some research and find authority websites that have broken links. Write content that would fill the gap and then email them. Say “Hey, I noticed you have a broken link. I’ve written this article and you’re welcome to use it as a replacement.”

Competitive analysis

Identifying how successful competitors are building links can save you a lot of time. Chances are, if their work was accepted onto a site, yours will be too. Neil Patel's article on competitive analysis tools may help you to get started.

Profile links

Look for opportunities to create professional profiles online. Social media profiles, directory listings and contributor profiles are all options. This approach doesn’t carry a huge amount of authority, but every link counts and it’s easy to do.

OTHER OFF-PAGE TECHNIQUES

Link-building is the most powerful off-page SEO technique, but there are others:

  • Social media marketing — promoting your brand, products and services across social media.

  • Brand mentions — social media posts, blog posts, articles and reviews that reference your brand.

  • Influencer marketing — promoting your brand through influencers that can reach a wide audience.

SECTION 3: Optimising for Mobile Devices

Hubspot reports that more than 51% of smartphone users have discovered a new company or product while conducting a search on their smartphone. So, making sure your website is optimised for mobile devices is probably a top priority for your business. There have been some big developments in mobile SEO and this guide explores the main themes to be aware of.

In 2018, Google changed the way it indexes. It used to index based on crawling your desktop site. Now, all indexing is based on crawling your mobile website. But what does that mean for SEO? It’s all about providing a great user experience. The SEO techniques that we’ve discussed so far also apply to mobile search but there are some additional factors to consider.

3.1 Display the Full Version of the Website

In the past, businesses have displayed less content on their mobile sites compared to their desktop version. That’s a big mistake in 2018. If your mobile site has less content, you’re less likely to show up in both mobile and desktop search results. You need to provide the full website experience.

3.2 Mobile Site Speed

Mobile site load speed is a weighted factor in mobile first indexing. A site or page with a slow load time WILL negatively affect ranking and annoy your users too. Examine all assets on each page and determine if they are necessary. Remove unnecessary elements will improve load time.

To help you identify any issues, head across to Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool. It scores your site speed for mobile and desktop separately and gives best practice suggestions for improvement.

3.3 Site Navigation

Mobile users want to be able to navigate your site quickly and easily. Pay attention to the factors below to cover best practice basics:

PHONE NUMBER

Make sure this is clickable (with your thumb) on mobile. People searching on mobile tend to be in an ‘in the moment’ state of mind. They don’t want to have to find a pen and write your number down. They want the easiest experience possible, so give it to them.

SIZE

How easy is it to click around your site? Are the buttons big enough to click easily with a thumb or fingertip? Are they spaced far enough apart to prevent mis-clicking? Pay attention to menus and submenus. Think about your font size too. Is the text easy to read on a small screen?

SPACE

Whenever you create a new site or page, check to see how it looks across different mobile devices and tablets too. Remember, the mobile experience comes before the desktop experience. Check that the layout is intuitive and that nothing is cramped.

What do sign-up forms look like? Keep them short and easy to complete on a mobile device. Remember the user will be filling fields in using their fingertips. Make sure this isn’t a frustrating experience.

3.4 Website Design

When building a mobile website, you have three design choices:

DYNAMIC SERVING

In this format, the server detects the user’s device type and serves the appropriate version of your site. The user accesses the same URL as for your desktop site, but the pages are displayed using separate files.

SEPARATE DOMAIN

This is where you create a separate version of your site using an m.subdomain. As with dynamic serving, the mobile and desktop versions use different files.

RESPONSIVE

Here, you have just one version of your site for desktops and mobile devices. Responsive CSS coding allows each page to display in a way that is suitable for the device.

It is best practice and easier to adopt a responsive design. You don’t have to perform each task multiple times, optimise for different platforms or double up on files.

SECTION 4: Local SEO

Not everyone knows this, but Google uses a separate algorithm to serve local results. If you have a physical business location and want to reach a local audience then optimising your site for local SEO is important. Why? Because it gets results. A survey by Bright Local in 2017 revealed that 97% of consumers look online for local businesses. They do that via local SEO.

Here’s another interesting statistic  — 75% of people visit a local store within 24 hours of finding it online. If you have a shop or supply physical services, that’s got to be worth taking note of.

4.1 What’s the Difference?

So how are local SERPs results different? Let’s take ordering a curry as an example. It’s Friday night and you fancy a curry. You Google ‘takeaways near me’ and you get a list of Indian takeaways that are near your location. That’s local SEO at work. You can’t be in the game unless your business has a physical address.

Let’s go back to the Indian takeaway scenario. The SERPs listings that a searcher will take notice of are the results in the Local Pack. This is a map that shows the locations of the curry houses in the areas, plus information about each business.

It displays details such as:

  • Business name

  • Description

  • Image

  • Opening hours

  • Star reviews

  • Address and contact details

  • Website address

Here’s an example of a Local Pack result for ‘Indian takeaways near me’:

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The Local Pack helps the searcher to make a quick and informed decision. It also gives search engines the information they need to rank listings.

4.2 Local Search Ranking Factors

PROXIMITY

It stands to reason that Google will look hard at a company’s proximity to the searcher when serving up local results. If you’re located in the south of the city, don’t expect to show up in the local pack for the north of the city.

Whilst you can’t influence proximity, you can make sure that search engines know where your business is located. Read on to find out how.

NAP

For local SEO, on-page optimisation needs to include listing your company’s name, address and phone number (NAP). These details need to be consistent, not just on your website, but on listings elsewhere on the internet too.

LOCAL CONTENT

These days, it’s not enough to throw the name of your town or city into a page few times. You now have to fully optimise the page for that location. That means including the place name in the H1 title, first 100 words, title tag, meta description and slug.

Writing localised blog posts can be great for local SEO. Throw in some articles that talk about your local area, other local services or things that are happening in the community. Search engines will reward you with a high local relevancy score and searchers will like your knowledge of their community.

  

GOOGLE MY BUSINESS LISTING

Get yourself listed on Google My Business — it’s an absolute must. Google loves it when you use its services and this service is top of the list for local SEO. Make sure your NAP details are consistent. For best results, complete your profile fully and post on the platform regularly.

If you need a hand with your GMB account, head over to Twitter. The GMB Team have an account there and they are super helpful. Find them @GoogleMyBiz.

Oh, and don’t forget Bing. It has an equivalent platform called Bing Places for Business. Whilst Bing isn’t as popular a search engine as Google, it’s definitely worth getting listed.

LOCAL LINKS

As with global SEO, links are a highly weighted relevancy signal. The difference is that you are working on a much smaller scale. You don’t need hundreds of links to rank well locally, they just need to be relevant. This is great news. Domain authority isn’t even an issue as search engines acknowledge that small, local businesses will have limited authority. Linking to any relevant local business website will achieve good results.

REVIEWS AND CITATIONS

Google loves positive reviews. It gives the most relevancy to reviews on its own platform but reviews on Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp and well-known review sites count too. Make sure you respond to all reviews of your business. Both search engines and people will judge you on how you handle negative feedback.

Citations also work in your favour. References that include your business address and phone number are all clocked for local ranking.

SECTION 5: Monitoring and Improving SEO Results

So, now you know how to implement technical, on-site and off-site SEO. The next step is to monitor your efforts so that you can refine your strategy. By keeping a close eye on what’s working and what’s not, you can make informed decisions about where to invest your time.

To measure SEO success, you will need to track website traffic, engagement and link data. Here are some key performance indicators that you might want to focus on:

  • Organic traffic growth

  • Keyword rankings

  • SERPs position

  • Number of indexed pages

  • Average time on page

  • Average bounce rate

  • Top landing pages for attracting organic traffic

  • Conversions from organic traffic

  • Link quality and quantity

There are many free and paid tools available to help you monitor and analyse your SEO activities. Techradar’s article, Best SEO Tools of 2018 provides a good overview of some of the main contenders.

Don’t forget…

Search engine optimisation is a long-term strategy and there are no quick fixes. Getting results requires time, effort and a solid, well executed strategy. Algorithms don’t stand still. You will need to stay on top of your game and be ready to respond to changes with new techniques and approaches.

Good luck!

If you found this guide useful, why not share the love across your social platforms.

Sue Davison