It takes years of study and practice to be an authority in any subject, but with a good crash course you can at least know the basics of what you’re talking about. This is good, because it keeps you from looking like an idiot or betraying the fact that you have no basic understanding of how the world works.
SEO is not an every-day profession for most people. Most people, in fact, go through life without ever thinking about how Facebook sorts their posts or how Google determines what results to show you. The thought that it can be influenced at all is foreign to many.
What I’ve compiled here is not going to make you a professional. You won’t be able to go out and start a business. Instead, I’ve covered all the basic concepts of SEO and how it all works, with links to further reading. Take it at your own pace, learn as much as you can or need to, and come back when you’re hungry for more.
What is SEO?
SEO is the acronym for Search Engine Optimization, which is the art and the science of tweaking elements of your online presence in order to attain a higher ranking in the Google search results. Other search engines, like Yahoo, are affected as well, but since the vast majority of search activity happens through Google, it’s the one we all focus on.
The optimizations that you can make in order to improve your ranking rely on knowing how Google works, more or less, and what actions you can take to either benefit your site or harm it. One issue that commonly comes up with novice SEOs is having a brilliant idea to undercut the system, only to discover that it’s something people thought up a decade ago, used to great effect until Google penalized it, and is now a quick way to the doghouse.
You can divide up SEO factors into two main categories; onsite and offsite. Onsite factors are factors you can control about your site itself. Offsite factors are elements of other websites, some of which you can influence, but many of which are more social or value-based.
The number one rule with SEO is to avoid over-doing anything. You hear keywords are good to include, but include too many and now you’re keyword stuffing. You hear it’s good to use images, but use too many and your site slows down and loses value. This is all collectively called over-optimization, and is a way to discourage people from nitpicking when they could be doing something more valuable, like producing high quality content.
The onsite factors for SEO can be part of your site structure or your content.
- Meta data. Your site meta data generally includes your title and description. This is code in the header of your site and is what determines the text in Google search results. You want your title to be 70 or fewer characters, with a brand name, generally with a page article title as well. Your description should be a couple of sentences with a summary of the content and a keyword or two worked in.
- Additional meta data. Image alt text is a big one here, but many supplemental forms of media have their own meta data you can add, up to and include the Schema.org markup that helps add value to certain types of data on a site.
- Links. Links from your site to other sites, and links from your site to other pages on your site, are both important. Internal links help Google discover other pages on your site, to fully index everything. You can also accomplish this with a sitemap. Links from your site to other websites pass some SEO value from you on to them, unless you use nofollow, which is a discussion on its own.
- Other elements of site structure. The proper use of header tags, bold and italics, restrained use of color, standard navigation; these are all site elements that collectively fall under the User Experience. The more esoteric or unusual your site design, the harder it will be for the typical user to navigate, and the lower your SEO value will be.
Think of all of the above as the cosmetics you might wear to a party. They can dress you up and make you look better than you appear at first glance, but they aren’t the core of who you are. That comes down to two things; your skeleton and your flesh.
Okay, that’s a bit of a morbid way to look at it, but it’s accurate as a metaphor. Your skeleton in this case is your site architecture. Something running on WordPress or another CMS, or using a unique hand-coded architecture, or using a forum software, and so forth will all make a difference. Likewise, the web host you’re using can have an impact. All of these affect two primary SEO factors; your site speed and your security. Fast web hosting and fast architecture is a must, and you need to keep it up to date to avoid being compromised.
Content comes in a wide variety of forms, but by far the most common is the blog post. Images, tutorials, infographics, slide decks, podcasts, videos, livestreams; all of these are extensions or spinoffs of the blog post format.
In order for media to appear in the Google search results, it needs to be indexed. Google can index any form of text media, but it needs help with other forms of media, like images and videos. These generally need alt text or transcripts in order for Google to properly parse them.
When Google indexes a piece of content, it determines information about that content. It looks for keywords to figure out what the topic of the post is. It looks for structure to figure out what kind of media it is. This breakdown all happens behind the scenes, but it involves elements that are well understood. You can learn a lot more through the Kissmetrics beginner’s guide to content marketing.
Offsite elements of SEO are links. The way a site ranks, in addition to its content quality, length, and distribution, is through links. Every link has value associated with it. Value comes from a variety of factors, including the position of the link on the page, and the quality of the page it comes from, as well as the relevance between the two linked posts.
For example, a post about washing machines linking to a storefront for washing machines is a high relevance link. A post about washing machines linking to a post about dryers can be very relevant as well. A post about washing machines linking to baseball statistics is not relevant at all.
Links are also affected by their anchor text, which is a tricky conversation. You want to vary your anchor text whenever possible, but you also don’t want to make every individual link use a different anchor, because both extremes can trigger penalties.
Links can be organic or they can be sponsored. Organic links are like the links in this blog post; ones I put in because I know the destination is of value. Sponsored links are ones where the site I link to approaches me and asks for a link, generally in exchange for value of some kind, either money or a link in return most typically. Sponsored links can be dangerous; if not properly flagged, they can become unnatural, and can be the cause of a penalty.
Links – and the techniques for obtaining them – can also be labeled either white hat or black hat, with “gray hat” in between as a mixture of the colors. These terms come from old hacker culture. White hat is legitimate; these are the techniques allowed by Google. Things like writing high quality content and sending it out on social media to high profile influencers are white hat and allow the other party to decide if they want to link back or not. By contrast, methods like spamming blog comment sections with links, hacking pages to insert links, and reciprocal link building are considered black hat. Those links will either have no value, will lose value quickly, or will invite a penalty. Gray hat techniques are typically on the edge of being immoral, but not outright banned quite yet.
Some valid link building techniques include:
- Creating guest posts for industry blogs, which contain links back to your site.
- Using social media to gain a presence and entice people to link to you as a source of value.
- Creating relationships with high profile people and businesses in your industry, and getting them to recognize your value and link to you.
I’ve mentioned penalties a few times, and they are the consistent boogeyman for SEO professionals. Penalties come either as algorithmic penalties or manual actions, but both have one thing in common; they decrease your search ranking in response to the violation of some rule or another.
Manual actions are actions taken against your site by Google specifically for a handful of reasons. These reasons include unnatural links pointed at your site, your site showing signs of being hacked, your site posting too much thin content, your site posting spam content, your site using cloaking or sneaky redirects to send traffic to pages they didn’t intend to visit, your site hiding text or keyword stuffing, and a couple of other more minor or rare causes.
With a manual action, you will be notified of what caused the action, what action was taken, and how you can fix it. All of this will be posted in your Google Webmaster Tools panel. You can read more about manual actions here.
Algorithmic penalties come when Google changes the way their ranking algorithm works, such that the value assigned to your page drops, and thus your overall site value and search ranking drops. Google regularly updates their algorithm, but major updates tend to only happen once or twice a year. One of the biggest such updates happened in 2011 and was called Panda. It dramatically shifted the baseline for what would be considered quality content and hurt sites that used too much low-value content. Prior to Panda, volume over quality was a viable strategy. Post-Panda, quality over quantity became the mantra.
Algorithmic penalties are invisible unless you’re monitoring your search ranking on an ongoing basis and notice when your ranking drops. You then have to cross-reference that date with any known algorithmic updates. Only then can you determine what caused your drop and how you can improve that factor. Since there are hundreds of individual factors contributing to your Google ranking, it can be difficult to track one down.
The core of any good SEO professional’s arsenal is a suite of tools that help you harvest, process, and report information. Foremost among these is Google Analytics, which will track a myriad of traffic and site information, and works well with a bunch of other systems.
You will also want to learn and grow familiar with many of the other industry tools. Moz’s Open Site Explorer is excellent in general. Majestic’s backlink audit is great for identifying link quality. There are also dozens of tools for narrower purposes, to use as necessary.
Data is the key to any successful optimization plan. You need to know where you start, you need to know what to change, and you need to know how those changes affected your site. Only with good analytics installed ahead of time can you harvest this data.