SEO Basics: All You Need to Know

SEO BasicsSearch Engine Optimization (SEO) can seem like a very complex and scary topic for a new blogger or webmaster.  These simple SEO Basics are all you need to know to make sure that Google and the other search engines can find and rank your site’s pages, and to increase your site’s search engine rankings.

I’m probably going to shock a few people when I claim that SEO isn’t really that complicated.  After all, specialists spend their whole careers as SEO professionals, running massively complicated programs to learn what’s going on inside Google’s brain.

The point is, we as webmasters and bloggers don’t actually need to understand all the nuances.  All we need is a basic understanding of how search engines work and a few actionable steps to follow to optimize our websites or blogs.

It’s important to have at least a basic understanding of SEO before you even finalize your first niche website idea.  This is because you’ll be doing extensive keyword research to determine the viability of your chosen niche.  We need to understand how search engines work before we get into the details of keyword research.

This one post will give you all the background you need to understand how SEO works and what you need to action.  That’s not to say that you’ll walk away an expert.  For example, keyword research or link building are quite easy to explain and understand, but can take a very long time to truly master.

My goal with this article is to demystify SEO and concentrate your efforts where you can do the most good.  SEO work very much follows the 80-20 Pareto rule.  20% of the work can accomplish 80% of the benefit.  You just need to understand which 20% to concentrate on.

Caution:  There is an incredible amount of bad information floating around the internet on SEO.  Much of it is simply out of date, but some of it was never true.  Be cautious of the source of your information and when it was published!

How Search Engines Work

It’s important to remember that the search engines are not there to help webmasters get traffic.  They are there to make money from advertising targeted at searchers.  If the search engine does a good job of serving up quality content relevant to the searcher’s query, then they will gain in market share and make more money.

Right now, Google has about 75% of the market share which is why most people just concentrate on Google optimization.  This isn’t a bad strategy since all search engines behave in similar ways.

Now on to the details:  All of the search engines use virtual “robots” to continuously crawl the web.  These robots catalogue each page they find and then follow links to find more content.

The content of each page is analyzed for keywords, links, and other factors.  The search engine is trying to answer two questions:

  • What is this page about?
  • What is the quality of this page to a searcher?

These are actually pretty difficult questions for a computer program to answer.  It’s our job to help!  A large part of SEO is simply not getting in the way of the robots and making it as obvious as possible what our content is actually about.

Once a searcher enters a search term, or keyword phrase, the search engine searches its database for that keyword and then serves up pages in order of relevance (note: each page is ranked, not your entire site as a whole.  Each page should be optimized).  The secret sauce of each search engine is how it determines this ranking on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

Your page’s SERP rank is enormously important to the traffic you will receive “organically” (from the search engines).  The first three positions get 50% of all clicks.  In contrast, the entire second page shares 5%!!  You can check out the detailed breakdown on the graph below from a recent study.

SEO is all about improving your SERP rank to get more organic traffic.

SEO basics - CTR vs SERP rank

Click Through Rate vs Position on the Search Engine Results Page. “Branded” searches are for specific brand names.

On-Page SEO Basics

On-Page SEO is all about the things that we can control on our website.  We have no excuse here. We need to get these things right.  Half of this is about making our site easy for the robots to understand and the other half is about writing great content that is both understood by robots and appreciated by real humans.

For example, a robot can’t watch a video or view an image, so we need to make sure that we serve up clear signals about our page’s content in the form of alt text.  We also need to make sure the search engine can navigate around the site and find all of our pages in order to index them (if you want to see what the robots see, right-click on this page and click “view source“).

Once we’ve made sure that the robot can find and understand our pages, we need to make sure that the page topic, or primary keyword, is clear to the robot and that the content is high quality.  The search engines are constantly improving their algorithms to detect spammy sites that are stuffed with keywords, ads, and affiliate links but have very little actual quality content.

If you write good quality content that your audience finds useful, you’ll be fine.  Your links should also be to good quality sites, and you shouldn’t stuff so many ads in that it would annoy your readers.  Again, if your readers are happy, Google should be happy.

One way that Google measures whether searchers find a site useful is called bounce rate.  This is the percentage of people who click through to one of your pages and then just hit the back button to the SERP to try again.  If your bounce rate is high, then Google knows people aren’t finding what they are looking for on your page and your rank will suffer.

Off-Page SEO Basics

Off Page SEO is much harder to directly affect since it is outside your direct control.  However, these are some of the most powerful ranking factors and can’t be ignored.

One of the best ways for the search engines to decide if you have good quality content is to see if people are linking to your content.  They analyze both backlinks from other websites and social shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.  Of the two, backlinks are by far the more important.

Your SERP rank is affected by both the quantity and the quality of backlinks.  A single backlink from the Wall Street Journal is worth hundreds or thousands of backlinks from article directories or blogs that nobody reads.  Each website is scored on how trustworthy it is and this in turn determines the value of a link from that site.

A good rule of thumb is that if a human on a high quality site related to your page’s topic decided to link to you, then that link has high quality.  If you placed your own link in a directory somewhere, then this will have much lower value.

Many places where you might place your own link, like in blog comments or forum posts, use “nofollow” links.  This means that a tag is automatically put into the link’s code to tell the robots not to follow the link.  These links may bring traffic to your site directly by people clicking on them, but they don’t help your ranking in the search engines.

Should You Game Google?

Traffic is money for a well monetized website, so the temptation is huge to find a way to artificially move a page up the rankings.  This is known as “black hat” SEO.  The most obvious examples are buying backlinks or creating a Private Blog Network of your own blogs whose sole purpose is to link to each other.

Even 5 years ago, these tactics were pretty successful and widely used.  Then Google started cracking down and people had their sites de-indexed.  Their revenue dropped to zero overnight.

It might be worth attempting to outsmart Google for a small micro-niche site that you haven’t spent too much time or money setting up, but it is very unwise to play any sorts of games with an authority site that you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours building.  Google will eventually catch you and the results will be catastrophic for your online business.

Your SEO Basics Action Plan

Enough theory.  What do you actually need to do to optimize your website for the search engines?

Keyword Research

First and foremost is Keyword Research.  You will do this before you even set up your website.  Keyword phrases are the search terms that people type into the Google search bar.  Amazingly, Google makes an incredible amount of data available about what terms are being searched for and how much people are paying to place ads on these keywords.

This information allows us to evaluate how much interest there is in a certain topic and also the specific language people use when looking for information!  This is marketing gold when it comes to writing articles that people care about and will actually find.

An article should be written around a single keyword phrase (though secondary phrases can be sprinkled throughout) to increase your chances of ranking in the results pages.  An article that tries to rank for everything will rank for nothing.

Keyword Research is a critical skill and isn’t easy until you get the hang of it.  We will have a series of upcoming posts that will investigate the methods and tools to determine:

  • How much search traffic a certain keyword phrase gets,
  • How much “commercial intent” the searchers for this phrase have (how much money we can expect to make for ranking for this keyword), and
  • How strong the competition is on the first page.

WordPress SEO Plug-In

WordPress is already built to do a pretty good job of SEO.  However, the free Yoast Wordpress SEO Plug-In does a great job of making thing even better.  It does three key things:

  1. It worries about all of the “back-end” site-wide stuff like optimized post URLs and XML sitemaps (I haven’t even mentioned these since Yoast will automagically take care of them for you).
  2. It provides a nifty interface right where you’re typing your post to help you see how you’re doing with optimizing your specific article for your focus keyword.
  3. It gives a field right in your post editor for creating your “meta description” which is the snippet of text that Google will display on the SERP right under your article title.  Without this, Google will just guess at what chunk of text to put there and you lose the opportunity to “sell” your page to the searcher.

Item 2 is a great tool.  It will make sure that you’re using your keyword in your article title, in at least one heading, in your image alt-text, and in an appropriate amount of your content body.  It will also remind you to have a few outbound links to high quality sites.

Item 3 won’t actually affect your ranking, but it will affect your Click Through Rate.  More people who see your listing on the SERP will understand what a great resource you’re providing and click on your link.

Remember that the keyword phrase that a person searched for will be bolded on the SERP.  If you have that phrase in your page title, URL, and meta description, then it will be bolded in all three.  The Yoast plug-in makes achieving this easy.

Google Webmaster Tools and Analytics

As a webmaster, using Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics is free and provides you with important information that you can use for SEO.

Google Webmaster Tools will tell you if you have an invalid site map, broken links, or are getting crawl errors.  You want the robot to be happy, so pay attention to fixing all these issues!

You will also find out what keywords your pages are ranking for, how many times people view your content on a SERP, and what your Click Through Rate is.  This is important feedback on how you’re doing in implementing the SEO basics you learned here.

Google Analytics provides an amazing wealth of data about your traffic.  You can find out where they’re coming from (both which backlink on a website and geographically), what they’re searching for when they find you, and how they behave on your site.  You will also be able to see the very important bounce rate so you can tell if your content is captivating your visitors.


[Update: 21 April 2015] Today, Google is officially making mobile friendly websites an important ranking factor.  It already should be important to you since so many of your readers are likely accessing your content on their phones or tablets, this is just another reason to make sure that your site works on little screens.

The easiest way to comply is to make sure that your WordPress theme is “responsive” (it will adjust to the size of the user’s screen).  Many paid and free themes are already good to go out of the box. Here’s Google’s checking tool so you can check yours and make sure your site is good to go.

This Google Algorithm update should be good news for you if you take the simple step of using a mobile responsive theme.  It will push you higher in the rankings as other less up to date websites are punished for not being mobile friendly.

Create Great Content

This is what it’s all about.  The whole point of SEO is to make sure that people find your great content.  You have to remember that at the end of the day you’re writing for people, not robots.

An Authority style website isn’t just about website traffic like some smaller niche sites might be.  You will bring in organic traffic from the search engines.  If they like what they see, then they will share it with their friends, build links to it on their own blogs or websites, and come back later to see what’s new.

Traffic from the search engines only constitutes a portion of your traffic, so don’t geek out on SEO and forget about serving your readers.

Link Building

Now that you have great content, it’s time to get the word out.  Social media is great for this, and content marketing is worthy of a whole post (or three) on its own, but backlinks from other websites are what will catapult you up the SERP rankings.

White Hat link building isn’t an easy or quick process.  You don’t need to just wait for people to naturally find and link to your content. But if you want to speed things up, you’re going to have to reach out to related blogs and websites and actively recruit links instead of just paying somebody on for a dozen links on worthless spammy websites.  You need to get the word out that you’ve created great content.

It’s also important to remember that  the links should come from sites that are actually related to your content.  This will do two things.  First, the search engines will give much higher weight to the link, and second, you will get higher quality traffic from that site.  Never forget that actual people clicking on backlinks at closely related websites will bring highly targeted traffic to your site.  It’s not just about the search engine robots!

Like Keyword Research, Link Building is a foundational skill of good SEO and we’ll certainly be coming back to this topic to learn more.  Now that I’m up to a dozen posts on this blog, I’m only starting to reach out actively myself.  In the meantime, Moz has a great guide on Link Building if you want to read more on how it’s done.

(You’ll notice that Moz just earned a backlink from me because they created some fantastic content.  That’s what it’s all about!)

I hope you feel that you now understand SEO a bit better and have some concrete actions that you can implement today.  If you want to know more, the Moz SEO Beginner’s Guide is a great place to start.

Do you still have questions about the SEO basics? Do you think I missed something important? Leave a comment below. 

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3 thoughts on “SEO Basics: All You Need to Know

  1. HI Chris,

    Thanks for the Google Webmaster tip – I just had a look and fixed a couple of small things!
    A good tool (actually plugin) for Google Analytics is the Google Analytics by Yoast plugin – it gives a dashboard with events and bounce rate, plus some extra reports (traffic source, etc). It makes looking at the stats easier and avoid the use of the slightly over complicated Google Analytics (though addictive).
    Since we are on the topic – do you have a recommendation to reducing bounce rates?

    Keep on researching for us!

    1. Hi Gilad,
      I’m glad I could help!
      I use the Yoast Analytics plug-in as well. It has a lot less information than the actual Google Analytics website, but it’s right here on my dashboard, so it keeps me from getting dragged into an hour of poking around in the data when I should be writing great content.
      Bounce rate is a tough one as there may be many factors. Good content and good site design are important, and I think you do a good job there. Bounce is defined as a “single page visit”, so make sure that you have good internal linking and obvious ways for people to find more content once they’re done reading the first article they see.
      I find that a fair amount of my “bouncing” traffic” seems to be comment spammers from Russia (the wonders of Google Analytics shows me this). I’m hoping that they’ll leave me alone once they realize that their comments aren’t getting through. The Aksimet plug-in is a lifesaver for spam comments.

      1. I thought that I’m the only one under the “attack” of Russian spammers! Aksimet is indeed a lifesaver. I’m willing to join your belief that they will pass along when they understand they aren’t coming through! They are indeed my biggest “bouncers”.

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