If you know nothing or next to nothing about SEO, read this blog. It’s short. It’s simple. It will teach you the basic workings of organic search algorithms and a few key elements to hit.
Disclaimer: SEO is largely situational. There are exceptions to some information provided, and most “best practices” are flexible.
Overview of SEO
Organic search rankings are determined by an algorithm, which studies elements of the web in order to determine which webpages best answer a user’s search query. These elements help to determine a webpage’s relevance and authority.
Relevance is how topically related a webpage is to the search query in question. Relevance gets you a “ticket to the competition” in organic search because without it, you cannot even begin to compete & rank in organic search. Authority is how trustworthy the webpage is perceived to be. If relevance is the ticket to the competition, then building authority is the competition itself. The more relevant and authoritative a webpage is to the algorithm, the higher it will rank organically.
Each website starts some ambiguous “distance” away from ranking for a search query. Some start closer than others due to factors like the domain name. Building relevance and authority will close the distance to first begin ranking and subsequently increase ranking. Relevance can only get you so far in organic search before you must build authority to improve organic search performance.
Some websites will never have as much relevance for certain topics as others due to inherent qualities of their site & business; however, with high authority, they can still beat more relevant websites. An obvious example is comparing www.hula-hoop-world.com (not a real website) to www.amazon.com. Hula-Hoop World easily has the potential to be much more relevant to hula-hoops than Amazon does; however, Amazon is such a behemoth of authority that they only need to create one or two hula-hoop product offerings in order to instantly rank on the first page of organic search for hula-hoop queries.
SEO is all about building relevance and authority through building relationships. Relationships between internal pages on your website; relationships between your website and topics you want to rank for; relationships with others in your industry; relationships with your customers; etc. Each positive, meaningful relationship that you build can improve your organic search presence.
SEO work can be split into two primary facets: onsite and offsite. I dive into each below.
Onsite SEO refers to the optimization of your website for organic search. It is largely responsible for establishing relevance. Onsite SEO is especially important because it is the only thing in SEO that you directly control. It ranges from the obvious elements like page content to the user-obscured components like instructions for web crawlers.
Below are some of the most important onsite SEO points & concepts to hit. It is not a comprehensive list.
The address of a webpage. This is important for establishing information hierarchy and solidifying relationships of internal webpages. Additionally, it is an opportunity to provide more relevance by including important words.
- Avoid messy URLs that contain seemingly-random characters that users don’t understand
- Place hyphens between words to distinguish them
- URL hierarchy should be consistent with the site’s navigation structure
The title of a webpage. Historically, this has been the most influential onsite SEO point for establishing relevance. Arguably, it still is, but even if you disagree with that, nobody disagrees about the necessity of optimizing title tags. They are still very powerful.
- Do not exceed ~55 characters
- Include the primary keywords you want to rank for in the first portion of the title
- After a separator like a vertical pipe or hyphen, place your brand at the end of the title
The description of a webpage. This might appear as the black text below the link of a search result and is only important for incentivizing click-through to your result.
- Do not exceed ~155 characters
- Include a CTA
H1, H2, H3… Header
Titles of sections on a webpage. While some keywords may slightly help SEO, it is more important to be user-friendly. Headers are mostly important for establishing webpage information hierarchy.
- No more than one h1 header per page unless the page is very long
- H2 headers live below h1, h3 headers live below h2, h4 below h3, and so on…
- User-friendly before keyword stuffing
How crawlers/bots are instructed to crawl your website. This determines whether or not your website can be crawled at all and how efficiently it can be crawled. In order to rank in organic search, it is essential that the search engines’ bots can crawl your webpages.
- Ensure your robots.txt file is not set to “disallow all”
- Ensure pages you want indexed are not orphaned. In other words, link to them from already-crawled pages
- Create and maintain an XML Sitemap
Flat Site Architecture
Requiring fewer click-depths to reach content on your website. For SEO, this is important to flow more link equity (authority) from the homepage to the rest of the site, as well as more efficient crawling from bots.
- Naturally link in body copy to contextually related internal pages
- Provide sub-category navigation in the top navigation menu if appropriate
- Link internally to topically related content in the footer
Used by bots to disambiguate specific information on your page (e.g. product price). This can only be used for established “schema.” Rich snippets are important for drawing tighter correlations between your webpages and their topics as well as improving the visual look of your organic search listings.
Best Practice: Use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to make sure that you implemented the schema markup correctly.
Overall, the primary purpose of onsite SEO is to improve user experience while simultaneously sending as many clear topical signals to the algorithms as possible.
Offsite SEO refers to the growth of your digital presence outside of your website. Specifically, it works to build out external signals like brand citations, links to your website, and more social amplification. These signals are largely responsible for establishing authority; however, as organic search has evolved, they have increasingly helped determine relevance, as well.
The easiest way to understand how external signals build authority & trust is to think of them as “votes of confidence” for your website from other webmasters. If you have more votes than your competition, then this is a sign that more people trust your website over the competition.
External signals build relevance through the context in which they occur. If an online news outlet publishes an article about hula-hoops and links to www.hula-hoop-world.com, then that link is more valuable to Hula-Hoop World than a link on the same website but different article about the what Seattle band is best (Answer: Beat Connection).
Many webmasters try to game the organic search algorithms with links that they did not earn naturally (e.g. Paying a blogger for a link). While it is possible to get away with this, I strongly recommend against it. Algorithms have improved greatly in their ability to identify unnatural links, and they will only continue to improve. The risk of penalty is not worth the potential uplift in traffic. Instead of scheming to build unnatural links, you should put effort towards incentivizing visitors to engage & share your content in order to naturally earn links.
Below are a few ways to build external signals naturally. It is by no means a comprehensive list.
Create Engaging Content
This is the most commonly discussed SEO advice, and for good reason. Why would anyone talk about you or link to you if your content is boring or useless? The very first step in naturally earning external signals is to provide something worth sharing.
Social Share Buttons
Place social share buttons on webpages that you want people to share. Do not make the mistake of putting a follow button instead of a share button. Place them out of the way but still within with the primary page experience.
Social Follow Buttons
Place social follow buttons in the footer and/or header of your website. Do not make the mistake of using share buttons instead of follow buttons.
Be Active on Social Media
Be active on all of your social media accounts. There is zero benefit to having them unless you use them. Use Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook” approach to social media, and respect the context of each individual social network. You should not post the same thing on Pinterest that you post on Facebook. As Gary says, “If content is king, then context is God.”
Build Relationships with Influencers
Building relationships with influential people takes effort but is powerful for amplifying your content. Reach out to them on social media, via email, or rope them into your community discussions. Buy them a gift.
Promote Big Changes
Whenever your company releases a product, acquires another company, or something else “newsworthy,” make sure it’s in the news. These are some of your biggest opportunities to acquire external signals.
Be Where Your Topic Is or Should Be
Do your product & visual assets resonate with women ages 25-34 who make over $100,000 annually? Then you should be on Pinterest. Is there an active forum related to your industry? Then you should be on that forum. Do you want customers to find your physical location(s)? Then you should be in various local directories. Be where your topic is happening or should be happening.
Offsite SEO comes down to simultaneously appealing to emotions and incentivizing sharing. If a webpage makes people feel happy but there is no obvious share button, then it won’t perform to its potential. Even if the share buttons are placed perfectly, if the content is boring & useless, then nobody will share it. In other words, offsite SEO involves playing to the psychology of the user.
For anyone interested in understanding the human side of marketing, I recommend following the work of Gary Vaynerchuk. His books are poignant, his presentations are passionate, and his commitment to building meaningful relationships in business settings [and beyond] is unprecedented.
Organic search algorithms are constantly evolving, but if you understand the goal of the algorithms (to provide the most relevant and authoritative results for a search query) and what factors they examine in pursuit of that goal (onsite and offsite elements), then you should have a basic understanding of how organic search works. I encourage you to leave your questions & thoughts in the comments, and I will respond to them.