SEO is a fundamental skill in a marketer’s arsenal – maybe not the more technical aspects, but a good, solid understanding should be a prerequisite.
Optimising for search shouldn’t just be the province of one or two specialists or teams – any role that interacts with content has responsibility for SEO. Given the importance of online content within companies, a working knowledge of SEO is increasingly vital for marketers in particular – and companies are more likely to hire someone who has a broad knowledge, as fewer and fewer roles require just one specific skillset.
If getting to grips with SEO has been something you’ve been meaning to do, or you’d just like a bit more familiarity with how it all works, we’ve put together a comprehensive beginner’s guide to get you started. It doesn’t contain all the fantastically moreish detail that our SEO Best Practice Guide or SEO training does, but it’s a good aperitif.
There’s also plenty of links throughout to further reading, reports and resources that you can use to take your knowledge to the next level.
What is SEO?
SEO is the abbreviation for search engine optimisation. Search engine optimisation is the process of optimising your website and its content so that it can easily be indexed by search engines and found by searchers.
Using this indexed information about your website, search engines can provide searchers with the most relevant, informative and high-quality results based on their search terms. These listings are known as organic search results.
Ideally, if a website or webpage has good enough SEO, it will appear as the top result – or among the top results – for searches that it is most relevant to.
The results highlighted in the image above are organic search results. As demonstrated in the image, they share screen space with a lot of other SERP (search engine results page) features – including paid-for ads, which appear at the very top for maximum visibility.
For this article we’ll be talking about your web page’s appearance in organic listings; however, paid search is a fundamental part of search marketing and can be used in combination with SEO. For more info, check out our beginner’s guide to paid search: What is paid search (PPC) and why do you need it?
How to make your web page more visible to search engines
The following on-page SEO techniques can help make your web pages more accessible to search engines and rank higher up the SERP. Further down we’ll cover off-page SEO, the content itself, and improving click-through-rates.
On-page SEO refers to the optimisation of all the elements on your web page that you can control in order to make it visible to search engines. For instance: the use of a search engine-friendly URL with relevance to the content, good internal linking, fast loading pages, logical and clear navigation, and the use of sitemaps.
Here’s some basics for improving your website’s visibility using on-page SEO.
Linking to content within your own site is a great indicator to search engines that your site has value.
Google sends out Googlebots (also known as web crawlers, or spiders) to fetch information on new and updated web pages. This is known as “crawling” and will lead to your website’s inclusion in search results. Internal links are a great way to help Googlebots search and index your site.
Internal links help you to rank for certain keywords and help to distribute ‘link equity’ across your site. Some pages on your site may have more link equity than others, so it’s important to pass some of that equity onto pages you’d like to improve rankings for, or pages that are more likely to convert visitors.
Internal links also help reduce your bounce rate – the name given to the percentage of visitors who leave your site after only visiting a single page. If people arrive at an article and you give them some related content and somewhere else to go once they have read it, then it gives them a reason to stay on the site a little longer.
However, try to avoid over-stuffing paragraphs with internal links, as readers will consciously or subconsciously assume the piece is a mere ‘link-building exercise’ and trust the content less. Search engines will make a similar assumption. Two or three good quality internal links to relevant content, using accurate anchor text, spread throughout the article is best.
What is anchor text? So glad you asked…
Anchor text refers to the text to which you add an external or internal link (like this, where “this” is the anchor text), and it is generally seen as an indicator of the type, or content, of the link.
Concise yet descriptive anchor text helps search engines better understand your content. It is also very useful for users. Therefore, when you add a link to a piece of text, make sure the text is relevant to the link, and avoid phrases like ‘click here’ which give no information about where a link is pointing (these are particularly poor for screenreader users).
Some SEO experts also advise varying the wording of anchor text, as many pages linking to one page using the same anchor text may appear suspicious to search engines.
Headlines, titles and title tags
What is the optimal headline length for SEO? Opinions vary as to whether it’s better to use a slightly longer headline that contains more information – and keywords – or keep things concise to grab searchers’ attention and avoid the headline being truncated by Google.
The oft-cited “65-character rule” dictates that your headlines should be no longer than 65 characters (including spaces), which is roughly the length of headline that Google will feature on the search results page before cutting it short. However, this also includes your website name, so if you want your brand to appear alongside the headline, it’s best to keep your headline a bit shorter than that.
Is it possible for a headline or page title to be too long or too short? There doesn’t appear to be a direct relationship between headline length and search result ranking, so the benefits and drawbacks of a very long or very short headline are in a) how descriptive it is for search engines looking to learn what your content is about, and b) how appealing it is to searchers.
A very long headline can contain more information about what your content is about but might be off-putting or be truncated on the SERP, which reduces the likelihood of click-through. A very short headline, by contrast, will display in full but might be less informative to search engine bots and prospective readers.
Headlines and title tags are weighted less heavily in a webpage’s overall ranking than they once were, but they will always be key to drawing searchers’ attention, so it’s worth learning how to write a good one.
This is a document hosted on your website’s server that lists every page on your website. It’s a way for webmasters to inform search engines when new pages have been added or updated.
This is particularly useful if your site has pages that aren’t easily discoverable by Google, such as pages with few links pointing to them.
If you have a WordPress site, you don’t need to do a thing, as a sitemap is automatically generated and regularly submitted to search engines for you. If you need to make your own, here is some advice from Google on building and submitting a sitemap.
Create a naturally flowing hierarchy on your site. Make it easy for users to journey from general site information to more specific information. Provide breadcrumbs (these are text paths, usually located at the top of a page, that show where a page is in the site structure) so users can easily navigate back and forth and so that they know where they are in the general layout of your website if they’ve arrived on the page via other means.
An example of breadcrumbs on the website Yoast
Make sure you use text links for navigation rather than animation or images. Search engine crawlers find text links easier to understand, as do users.
Prevent and remove spam from the comments sections of your site. Even in 2019, it is extremely common for people to fill the comments section of a website up with either blatant spam containing links back to an irrelevant site, or with vague, generic comments that were transparently added for the purpose of gaining backlinks.
One step you can take to prevent this from impacting your own site’s SEO reputation is to set links in your comment section to ‘nofollow’. Normally, when crawling a website, a web crawler will systematically follow any links it encounters to the page that they lead to and index those pages, following the links on those in turn. However, by setting a link’s attribute to ‘nofollow’, web crawlers won’t follow that link or pass any SEO value to it.
WordPress comment sections are set to ‘nofollow’ by default; for other content management systems and website hosts, you can look up how to set this attribute or speak to your development team.
Content and SEO
We can take it as read that the quality of your content is the most important ranking signal for all search engine algorithms.
If you’re not producing high-quality, relevant, helpful content, then all of the SEO practices in the world won’t help you in the long run.
Google has an algorithm that’s complicated, ever-changing and impossible to second-guess. All you can guarantee is that no matter what Google and other search engines are looking for in terms of ranking, the value of your content will always be the top priority.
Write for human readers, not search engines. That way your content is more likely to be read and shared, helping to drive more traffic to your site and growing your audience.
Don’t be too concerned with the wordcount. Whether you’ve been recommended that a post should be at least 300 words long, or 500-1,000 words if your blog is new, it’s important to resist padding your content out with waffle for the sake of word-count.
Be as concise as possible. A reader would rather read a shorter article that gets to the point then a long-winded epic. Of course, if you’ve written a 2,000 word masterpiece stuffed with fascinating, completely relevant and helpful content, where you’ve been as tightly controlled and clear with your prose as possible, search engines will prefer this to one that’s a third of the length on the same subject.
Freshness & frequency
Content freshness is less all-important to SEO than it once was: evergreen content has seen a steady rise over the past few years as Google has begun to weight overall quality and relevance more heavily than recency of publication, and it’s not that uncommon to see pages from four or five years ago appearing in the top search results.
However, up-to-date content is also more likely to be relevant and appealing to searchers, and refreshing a piece of high-performing content – or creating an updated version, provided that you also update all the relevant links to point to it – can give you a big boost in search traffic. (We should know – this guide was originally published in 2015!)
Because freshness is weighted less heavily than it used to be, it’s not as crucial to SEO to keep publishing content to keep your site at the top of search results. While a consistent publishing schedule is still a good idea if you have a blog and want to build a readership, your focus should be on creating content that’s useful, relevant (for your brand and your readers) and of good quality – rather than publishing content for the sake of publishing.
Improving click-through rates
SEO experts have gone back and forth on whether click-through rate is a direct ranking factor for SEO, given that it is an indicator of whether a user found a search result interesting or relevant enough to click through to the site in question. While the consensus seems to be that CTR is not a part of Google’s core algorithm, Google may use click-throughs in a personalised way to adjust the results it shows for an individual searcher.
More to the point, if you want to convert a high search ranking to actual traffic to your site, getting click-throughs is the way to do so. There are many ways to make your search result appear more appealing to searchers; here are some of the key recommended ones.
Set a meta description
A meta description is the snippet of descriptive text that appears beneath the URL in SERPs and also when sharing the link on social media channels like Facebook.
This is what searchers will read and their decision to click through to your site will largely be determined by how relevant and readable this description is. Meta descriptions can be set manually using a meta description HTML tag, or on WordPress, by using a plugin like Yoast SEO.
It’s important to note that setting a meta description still won’t force Google to display it; Google will generate whatever description it thinks works best for the search query, which will either be yours or one adapted from the page content.
If your meta description is well-written, Google is more likely to display it, but it’s not an absolute guarantee. However, if you don’t create a manual meta description, Google will always generate it automatically from the page content, which can often result in incomplete sentences being pulled in, or phrases that don’t present your content in the way you would prefer – so setting one is still a good idea and a best practice.
What is the ideal length of a meta description? For many years, the optimum length for a meta description was between 150-170 characters, with the average meta description usually around 155 characters long. That all changed in 2017 when Google increased the upper length limit of meta descriptions to 320 characters – double what they had been previously.
Before you get too excited, Google reverted this change after just a few months, although it declined to give specifics about the exact upper length limit for a meta description. By and large, the ideal meta description length still seems to be 150-170 characters, but meta descriptions of more than 200 characters have been spotted in the SERPs – so don’t panic if you go a bit over.
Use schema markup
Schema markup is a type of HTML code that can be added to your website to make your search listing “richer” and more informative. How it works is that the markup helps search engines more easily understand the different types of information that a webpage contains, allowing them to pull that information through into a search result.
This information can range from business opening hours to images, star ratings, calorie count (for recipes), pricing information (for products) and more, depending on the type of webpage. These types of souped-up search results are known as “rich snippets”, or “rich results”. Here are a few examples:
The above rich snippet from Nicky’s Kitchen features a star rating with number of votes, time taken to make the recipe, calorie count and a preview image. It also has sitelinks at the bottom, which are deep links to somewhere else on the website that searchers can also click on. This means that if they fancy a slightly different recipe, they can easily click through to that, instead.
This rich result for Retro Café in London features a star rating, number of reviews, and a pricing ballpark for the café.
The above rich snippet for wireless headphones displays an average rating, number of reviews, and a price range for the product.
As demonstrated above, rich snippets can help your search result stand out in the SERP and will also give the searcher more information about your webpage that can both entice them to click through and make them less likely to bounce away, since they’re more sure of what they’ll be getting from the page.
Images and SEO
Many people don’t consider images as a potential driver of search traffic, but when optimised properly, they can be. Here are some pointers on image optimisation:
Use brief but descriptive file names for your images, rather than ‘image0057’.
Always fill in the ‘alt’ attribute. Search engines can’t see your images, but they can read the alt text. It’s important to describe your image as accurately as possible as this may not only improve your ranking in image search but also improve the accessibility for those using screenreader software.
At a minimum, you should complete the Title and Alt Text fields when uploading an image. The Title field should give the concept or object that the image represents (e.g. data security) while the alt text should describe it for anyone who might be visually impaired, is using screenreader software, or whose browser hasn’t loaded the image.
The main exceptions to the rule of always adding alt text are when the image is purely decorative (e.g. a page divider) or is of a person, in which case giving their name in the Title field is sufficient for accessibility. In both cases, it’s still very important to make sure your Title is accurate and readable.
Another important thing to bear in mind when uploading images is file size. Overly large, “heavy” images can be a major factor in slowing down a website’s loading speed, which results in a poor user experience and may have a negative impact on your search ranking. Make sure that any images you upload aren’t larger than they need to be (700 or 800px in width is usually sufficient for a blog post) and use .jpg format where possible to reduce file size.
SEO doesn’t begin and end with what’s on your site. “Off-page SEO” is the term used to refer to ranking signals and SEO strategies that are external to your website. While some might be outside of your control, you can also influence many of them.
Link-building and brand mentions
Google treats a link from another website to your site as a vote of confidence, provided that the site linking to you has a good reputation of its own. This means that inbound links (links pointing to your site) from high-quality or highly relevant sites will help considerably with your search rankings.
In the past, buying and selling links for the purposes of boosting a site’s ranking was extremely commonplace, until Google clamped down hard on paid-for links. For this reason, it’s important to build links to your site organically, such as by writing a guest blog for another relevant website, or if you have a local business, submitting it to a relevant directory. Never, ever accept paid link placements on another website.
Links are not the only thing that count as a “vote” for your site. Google and Bing have both developed the capability in recent years to take positive brand mentions (also known as “linkless mentions” or “unlinked mentions”) into account in a website’s ranking. Therefore, carrying out reputation management and building positive mentions of your brand, such as through reviews, can benefit your SEO.
As social media is a means of building both links back to your content and also positive brand reputation (when done in the right way), it is also important for off-page SEO. Over the years, social and SEO experts have concluded that social media is not a direct ranking factor, but with social pages all the more visible in search, it is an extension of your brand presence that you should maintain and pay attention to.
Ensure that all your social media profiles are up-to-date with accurate information and brand logos – it may worth be doing an audit of any old, neglected social accounts that may have been created over the years and forgotten about.
When it comes to how many social platforms you should be posting across, more is not necessarily better – you should only have a presence on as many platforms as you can reasonably maintain and use to connect with your audience. Make sure, too, that your social channels are clearly accessible from your website, along with share buttons to facilitate sharing your content.
If you want to go the extra mile in promoting your brand and boosting social media visibility, you could form a partnership with an influencer or influencers. Learn more about influencer marketing and how it works from our introductory course module.
Learn more about SEO
Now that you’ve read our Beginner’s Guide to SEO, here are some resources that will take your knowledge further: