You might have heard a lot about SEO in digital marketing and how people are making big money by tweaking a few settings on their website. It’s true that taking care of certain things while publishing a website/article can help you significantly boost traffic, but do you know how exactly SEO works?
SEO a very deep subject. Google claims that there are about 200+ factors that affect the rankings of your webpage. But luckily you don’t need to know all the stuff in depth. Just by understanding the basics, you will be able to significantly improve your rankings in search engines. In this article, I’m going to lay down all the concepts behind search engines, how they work, and how you can make your website rank #1 on Google. You can read the entire article or feel free to jump to any section that interests you:
Definition of SEO
You might probably know, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.
According to wikipedia, SEO is “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s organic results.”
You're probably scratching your head right now, even I got this definition all over my head when I first read it as a newbie. Let me reframe it in a simpler language:
SEO is the “process of optimizing your website to show up higher in the search engines organically when a person searches for a particular term”
Note the word organically - that’s a key word in this definition. Organic means naturally, without having to pay any money to rank your website. (More on that later)
That’s the basic idea behind all the deep and advanced techniques behind SEO. But to fully understand what SEO is, let’s understand what a search engine (Google, yahoo, youtube, amazon, etc) is.
What is a search engine?
Search engines that we had 30 years back were nowhere near to the ones we use today. In fact, the first search engine named “Archie” was created in 1990 and it was a FTP site hosting an index of downloadable directory listings. Fast forward now to 30 years later, we have highly complex Googlebot algorithms crawling and indexing webpages on the internet using AI and machine learning. It has become so advanced that any information you need on this planet is just 2 words away: “okay Google”
Basically, a search engine is a program that takes keywords from you and searches the web for sites that best match your entered query. It then displays the results on a SERP (Search Engine Results Page) in the order based on relevancy. You will see those websites on top that search engine thinks are most relevant to your search term.
So you can see, a search engine is a machine with a brain of its own. The job of a search engine is to give the best possible answer to the question asked by it’s user. Popular search engines use hundreds of factors to determine which result would be most suitable for you.
Famous examples of search engines are Google, Yahoo, Bing, YouTube, Amazon, etc.
How do search engines work?
Let’s try to understand in simple terms how popular search engines like Google work. Whenever a webpage is published online, search engines crawl that website and tries to understand what the page is about (don’t get caught up on words like crawl. It simply means a bot or a program browses your site and tries to understand what it’s about). Then, after analysing the content, it tries to index that page (again, indexing simply means adding that page into search engine’s database). Then, whenever someone searches for a term related to your webpage, your page may (or may not) appear to the user based on the relevancy.
For example, consider you publish a blog post about “Top 10 mobile phones in India”. Let’s understand the steps explained above:
- Google spiders will crawl your blog post and try to understand what the page is about.
- Google will index your article under related search terms.
- Next time when someone searches for “best mobile phones” or “good mobile phones” etc, you can expect people to see your blog post in Google results!
By now we have covered the SE part of SEO. Let’s understand the O now…
Why is SEO important?
Anyone having a website has some goals- for a blogger it might be to attract more readers or subscribers, for an e-commerce store it might be to get more sales, or for an affiliate marketer it might be to get more traffic and get more commissions. Regardless of your goal, you need more people to see your website. The number of people visiting your site is called traffic. Now, you can either pay for that traffic by buying ads (paid traffic), or you can get that traffic for free by making sure your website appears in search engines (free traffic).
But, there are probably thousands of people like you who might have the same goal and they might be publishing similar content as you are. So how to make sure that YOUR website appears on the top of the search results?
That’s where Search Engine Optimisation comes in. Recall the definition that I mentioned above (SEO is the process of optimising your website). By tweaking a few settings on your website and making sure you’ve done certain things correctly, you can significantly increase your chances of getting your website on the top results of Google.
Higher rankings means more clicks. More clicks means more traffic. More traffic means higher conversions. Higher conversions means more ₹₹₹₹₹ in your bank account!!!
Ranking factors affecting SEO
By now you might have probably understood what SEO means and how you can make more ₹₹₹ by doing proper SEO. Now comes the juicy part. Now let’s understand what are the most important factors that Google considers while deciding the rankings of a website.
There are 3 major types of SEO factors you need to take care of:
On page SEO (content optimization)
On page SEO factors are the factors that happen on your website. These are the techniques on which you have total control over. Make sure you do the following things correctly on your webpage:
1. Content quality
This is the most important thing to keep in mind when writing a piece of content. It’s not about the search engines, it’s about the users. If you provide the best information the user is looking for, Google will eventually start sending traffic to your website. Because that’s the job of Google; to send users to the most relevant solutions to their problems.
Don’t just write for the sake of ranking on Google. Many people make this mistake of framing the sentences for Google optimization. Your users will sense that eventually and that could hurt your brand in the long run. Make sure your content is human readable.
So focus primarily on giving the best value to the user and keep all the other SEO tactics secondary.
2. Page titles and meta descriptions
Title tag is the text that appears in SERPs. It should be both enticing for the users to click and also SEO optimized. Try to fit in your focus keyword in the title tag in a human friendly language.
Meta description is the summary of your article that appears in the SERPS. It helps users determine what the article is about. Again, don’t just keyword stuff this important piece of text. Make sure you summarise how the users will benefits by reading your post.
3. Heading tags and text formatting
Text formatting not only helps you with SEO, but also helps to make your article more readable. Bolding important words, italicising text, underlining, etc can make important parts of your articles stand out, which helps users to skim through your content
Heading tags help search engines understand how your articles are structured. Try to break your article into short pieces of content with relevant headings. Use H1, H2, H3… H6 tags to correctly structure your article.
4. Image optimization
Use proper image descriptions and alt tags on your images. This helps Google understand what your images are about and index them accordingly. As for user experience, these tags are helpful for differentially abled people.
5. URL optimization
Try to keep URLs short and clean, and if possible try to include your focus keyword in the URL.
Instead of having yoursite.com/page.php?page_id=187
use this format yoursite.com/tech/9-essential-accesories-for-your-iphone
6. Internal and external linking
Wherever relevant, try to link your pages with each other. This helps Google understand more about your site structure. Internal linking also helps in increasing time spent by users on website which is a HUGE factor in SEO.
External linking helps Google understand that you have well researched for your article and you are citing to relevant sources of information. It shows that your information is credible and also helps Google understand what your article is about.
Off page SEO (website promotion)
These are the factors on which you have little or no control over. Taking care of off page SEO factors takes time and efforts. As a beginner, I would recommend not to worry much about these.
1. Link building
Link building, or backlinks, is one of the most popular ways to improve your rankings in the SERPs. When someone links to your website, it basically means they find your article helpful and authoritative. This sends positive signals to Google and thus improving your rankings.
(Keep in mind that getting links from low quality domains could hurt your rankings. Read more about negative SEO)
2. Social sharing
Engagement is another ranking factor that determines your rankings. People share content if they find it helpful. This sends positive signals to Google, so make sure you ask your subscribers to share your article on social media.
3. Social bookmarking
It is a method of making a bookmark of your website or blog on internet platform to read it later. It’s a very controversial topic and many consider it to be a black hat technique (more on black hat in the next topic). Popular social bookmarking sites include Reddit, Dribble, Digg, WeHearit, Scoopit, etc.
Technical SEO (crawling and indexing)
These factors have much to do with the settings of your website. You will need to use various tools to know what settings are causing problems on your site.
1. XML sitemap status
XML sitemap is like a map guiding crawlers where and how to navigate your website. You can easily create it using plug-ins. Make sure your sitemap is updated and you have submitted it in Google Search Console.
2. SSL secure site
Having an SSL certificate installed on your site give you the HTTPS and the lock icon beside your website. Google says that it is a “light-weight ranking factor”, but as a brand, having an unsecured could hurt the trust of your visitors.
It is a file which tells Google which pages to crawl and which pages to block from being indexed. Make sure none of your relevant pages are being blocked in your robots.txt file.
4. Site structure
Having a proper site structure helps Google better understand your website content. Try to organise your website into logical silos or physical silos. Have well defined categories on your website. It’s good for search engines as well as user experience.
Whenever you update your site structure, make sure you implement proper 301 redirects from old pages to new ones.
5. Page load speed
Pages loading very fast are preferred by search engines. Also, attention span of humans these days is very low. So visitors may leave your site if it loads too slow. This will increase your bounce rate which could negatively affect your rankings.
Make sure you compress your images before uploading, and minimise the use of plug-ins on your website.
6. Mobile friendliness
A very easy to fix factor is checking if your website is mobile friendly. Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to check if your website is mobile optimised. If it’s not, make sure the theme you’re using is a responsive theme (layout which adjusts itself according to the screen size)
Black hat SEO vs white hat SEO
SEO techniques can be classified into 2 categories - the BAD way and the GOOD way. Let’s understand what they mean:
Black hat SEO - The deceptive approach
Many people are looking for quick profits and they try to use shady and spammy ways to rank their website. These techniques include providing content which has no value, scraped content, keyword stuffing, PBN link building, etc. The primary intention of black hat techniques is to trick the search engines without providing any real value to the user.
These methods will give you extremely quick results, but your results won’t be sustainable. Search engine algorithms are getting smarter day by day, and they will eventually understand if the website provides any real value or not. You might be able to rank the website quickly, but soon when the algorithms release any updates, you will get penalised and your rankings will drop overnight.
White hat SEO - The ethical approach
White hat SEO is the process of optimizing your website as per the guidelines of search engines. There is no deception involved, all the optimization is done with the user in mind. It’s simple, just create and organise your content with humans in mind, and Google will show their love by ranking you better.
Although these methods take some time to get results, they can stand the test of time and can survive any algorithm updates. Long-term business are built using white hat methods.
SEO vs SEM vs SMM
As a beginner, I used to get confused a lot with all these “S” terms. They’re all different spectrums of digital marketing.
SEO - Search Engine Optimization
Process of getting traffic by increasing the likelihood of ranking your website on the top of search engines. In the image above, it's the bottom left section of the graph.
SEM - Search Engine Marketing
Process of driving traffic to your website using paid advertising on search engines. In the image above, it's the top left section of the graph.
SMM - Social Media Marketing
Process of driving traffic to your website using various social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. In the image above, it's the entire right section of the graph. SMM can include organic as well as paid advertising.
How to learn SEO
There are 1000s of courses available on the internet for learning SEO, but I don’t believe in learning through courses.
I used to be that guy who purchased course after course just to make sure that I knew everything there is before starting a website. Most of the people today are stuck in this cycle of “information overload”. I don’t want you to make the mistakes that I made before starting out.
In today's age, most of the information you need is available for free on the internet. All you’ve got to do is start taking action and learn by doing. Firstly, learn the fundamentals and basics. Make your foundations strong by making mistakes. Once you understand the basics, then you can worry about all the advanced tactics.
To begin with, the steps are simple:
- Buy a domain name
- Buy a hosting
- Publish content
- Learn basic SEO
- Learn advanced SEO
That’s it, this is all that you need to know. You don’t need any course out there to help you with that. All the information is available for free.
I hope by now you understand what SEO means and related basic terms. SEO is a deep subject, and there's a lot more to cover. But if you're just starting out, the only thing you would want to do is take action and write your first blog post. You will learn 100x better by doing it yourself rather than reading articles or taking courses.
What's your skill level in SEO? And how you're trying to improve your skill? Let me know in the comments below, I love to interact with my readers 🙂