Are you a business owner or a marketing specialist in a small/mid organization looking to reap the benefits of SEO? If so, you’ve come to the right place.
Getting started with search engine optimization can be a daunting assignment; SEO is increasingly becoming more technical and more complex. But we are here to help lay down the foundation of doing in-house SEO, walk you through a straight forward process and present the most efficient tools to use.
Before getting started, remember that SEO is a long term investment; the effort and work you put in today will take weeks and even months before showing off any results. So besides having a process and a tool kit at hand, we also think it’s important to equip yourself with the right expectations.
Here is a list of all the topics we cover in this article. You can jump to any section by clicking the corresponding link.
- What is SEO
- Ensure your content is accessible to search engines
- How visitors find your website
- Earn trust with link building
- Optimizing content for search
- Improve local SEO
Before we begin – what is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization is the practice of enhancing your website in such a way that it appears higher in search engine results pages (or SERPs) with the purpose of attracting more visitors (or organic traffic in SEO terms).
The search engines’ main goal is displaying the most relevant and trustworthy results for any search query. So the relevancy of your website to a specific query as well as the overall site authority (determined largely by domain age, number of established websites linking to it) weight heavy in rankings. Other signals such as site speed, mobile usability, user experience, and keyword optimization are also factored in. So you want to make sure you check all major signals before anything else.
How to get started – make sure your content is accessible to Google
The first task you need to complete is making sure that Google, as well as other significant search engines in your region, are able to see and access your content so they can crawl and index it.
In short, search engines discover new content on the world wide web by sending out robots also called spiders or crawlers. As these bots find new webpages, they add them to the index – a massive database of URLs- to be later retrieved and displayed.
As counterintuitive as it might sound, what is visible to the human eye can go completely invisible to search engine bots; for example, images without alt text or animations.
- Check your website’s index coverage in Google Search Console to see how many pages Google has indexed and which ones, so you can make sure your important pages are being indexed. Bing Webmaster has a similar report named Crawl Information. Both Bing and GSC platforms are free and help you troubleshoot errors and measure your website performance in search results. So make sure you sign up and also verify your web property.
- Make sure there are no robots.txt blocking your pages from being crawled or indexed. Robots.txt is a text file that instructs bots how to crawl pages on the website. Essentially robots.txt can help hide content such as login/admin pages or test pages. However, some other important pages can be blocked by mistake, so we advise checking that your main pages are not blocked. To check if you have a robots.txt file, type into a web browser your root domain and add robots.txt to the end of the URL. If no .txt page appears, you do not currently have a robots.txt page.
- Have a clear site navigation – crawlers fetch a webpage and from there follow and visit all linked pages; by jumping from a page to another they cover an entire website. If any of your webpages is not linked to from any other page, then that will remain invisible to search engines. So make sure to link to a primary page on your website through navigation.
- Create and submit a sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing. Sitemaps are simply a list of URLs on your site that bots can use to discover and index your content. By creating one you let search engine know the priority of your pages and when you publish new content. Particularly if you have a new website with no external links pointing to it, submitting your sitemap to GSC can help you get indexed (although there is no guarantee). So go ahead and create a clear sitemap and include only the URLs you want to be indexed and then submit it to GSC and Bing. Sites such as xml-sitemaps.com allow you to create one; WordPress users you can also install Google Sitemap Generator plugin.
- Check for 5xx and 4xx errors – 5xx represent server errors (the server hosting the page failed to load the page) and 4xx represent client errors, pages that either contain a bad syntax or pages that don’t exist (anymore). Ensuring your website has as few errors as possible will help improve your SEO score, as a website with lots of errors signals to search engine that it might not be very trustworthy. Also, from a user perspective, landing on unavailable pages can be frustrating and drive them away, bad user experience resulting in lower rankings. In order to check for pages with error access Index Coverage report in GSC (Crawl Error in the old version) and Crawl Information report on Bing. While working to fix broken pages on a regular basis is a healthy practice, don’t aim for zero errors as this is virtually impossible.
- Improve your website’s speed – search engine bots have a specific “crawl budget” that they spend on a website, so if your website takes longer to load then the result is fewer pages will be crawled and indexed. If you add the fact that users expect a website to load in under 3 seconds, it’s even more obvious why speed matters. The most simple tool you can use to assess how your website is performing is Google PageSpeed Insights. The tool will give you an overall score for both mobile and desktop as well as suggestions on what to fix. If you want to get a detailed report and insights we advise using WebPage Test.
- Install an SSL certificate – SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is a type of technology that encrypts data transferred between a browser and a web server, ensuring that it stays secure. In 2014, Google announced that it would begin giving a slight ranking boost to secure websites. Additionally, Chrome now flags as “Not secure” websites without a certificate, which can deter users, causing a higher bounce rate which in turn can negatively impact rankings. Therefore we encourage you to get an SSL certificate as this will reassure your visitors they can trust your website and additionally get a small SEO boost.
Want to stay organized? Download our SEO checklist to make sure you don’t miss any important step.
How do visitors find you? – Do your keyword research
Now that we covered the basics of technical SEO, it’s time to move to the next important chapter: keywords. Search engines have become more and more sophisticated in deciphering content and since the Penguin update in Google’s algorithm, keyword over-optimization is penalized. Nevertheless, utilizing your target keywords in a natural way throughout the content and including them in meta tags and URLs is a critical SEO task still.
- Proper keyword research – before even thinking of doing on-page optimization, you first need to decide which keywords to target. You can start by creating a list of relevant topics for your business and from there start generating multiple variations. Free keyword generators such as Answer the Public, Ubersuggest or Keyword.io are helpful in generating all possible variations. Another idea is to check the Performance report in Google Search Console (Queries tab) and Search Keywords in Bing, to see what keywords visitors used to land on your website. After gathering a large list of keyword variations, you can decide which ones to keep based on search volume, relevance, and competitiveness. Google Ads Keyword Planner is a simple tool that lets you see keywords’ competitiveness and search volume. If you are interested in learning what our step by step process for keyword research is, you can further read here.
- Target a combination of mid& long-tail keywords – while head terms attract a high volume of search, they are very competitive keywords (require a lot of effort to rank for) and don’t reflect a clear purchase intent. On the flip side, long-tail keywords are far less competitive and attract lower search volumes; targeting only long-tail can result in attracting little new organic traffic. Therefore in our experience, the best approach is to target both mid-tail and long-tail keywords, staying away from very competitive keywords.
- On-page optimization for main pages – after deciding what keywords to bet on, the simple thing to do is isolate your main pages and choose a maximum of two or three keywords to optimize each page for. Remember to include the target keywords in the URL, meta tag, meta description, header tag and body content alike. We wrote a short guide on keyword optimization that can help you make the most of on-page SEO.
- Optimize new blog pages as you publish them – if you have an old blog with lots of articles, it might prove challenging to take them one by one and do on-page optimization (assuming you haven’t done it in the first place). So what we advise instead is to make a practice of optimizing each new blog post as you publish it, thus increasing your blog chances of showing up in search results and driving new audiences.
Link building – the long-run game
As we mentioned in the beginning, your website’s authority is largely determined by the number of (high quality) external links pointing to it. The more links point to a website, the more trustworthy it is in the eyes of search engines, it works as a trust vote if you like. Even more than the number of external links, in recent years, the quality of those links has become more important.
Gaining external links from trustworthy websites (such as media outlets) requires a lot of effort and patience, but it’s a strategy that will pay off; without it, out beating your competitors might prove very challenging. Here are a couple of strategies you can follow in order to increase your website’s inbound links.
- Build a blog – informative and up to date articles have the power to bring visitors and keep them coming, generate conversations and shares. Your main focus should be on how to make your blog a useful resource, rather than overoptimize for keywords. Not to mention that this is one strategy that Google endorses.
- Create sharable content – one of the best ways to attract links is to create content that is too good not to be shared. Think about content that is both educational and helpful and that answers your target audience’s questions. What are the hot topics in your industry you can tackle? And how can your content bring value to your readers? Pay attention to form as well, infographics and content that is visually attractive tend to bring more readers and shares.
- Request links from partners – link exchange at scale is a practice that is penalized by search engines, so we don’t recommend you engage in a “link to my website and I’ll link to yours” kind of effort. However, you can earn links from your trusted partners in a way that is beneficial to both sides, for example by guest posting on their blog on a topic you master or by offering to write product testimonials.
- Stay in touch with the media – one other direction you can follow is to personally connect to journalists or bloggers relevant for your industry and offer to give them a quote or provide a point of view whenever there is an update concerning your line of business. Bringing valuable ideas to the table can earn you both trust and exposure.
Content is king – create content that adds value
Just as external linking validates your website’s trustworthiness, high-quality content demonstrates your expertise on certain topics, hence earning your website a higher search position. Furthermore, good content that is educational and helpful to your target audience keeps them engaged and that in turn improves your SEO score, as this signals users found what they were searching for. Publishing such content on a regular basis is important as this shows your website is up to date, not an outdated source.
Creating content is also a long term effort, so it might take a while before seeing the results; however, there are a few ideas you can implement in order to make it easier to create and publish SEO friendly content.
- Build a content plan – in order to stay organized and not risk running out of ideas, we think it’s best to plan ahead. You can put together a calendar with topics you want to approach and scheduled publish dates. You could include the topics you identified while doing your keyword research, questions frequently asked by your customers and prospects or address any updates/changes in your industry. We find that by having a content plan it’s easier to actually publish new content rather than by writing when our schedule is free of other tasks. As for publishing frequency, what matters most is the quality of the articles and the added value they bring for your audience. So if your schedule only allows you to publish one or two articles per month, then go ahead and do that – remember that quality and user experience trump quantity.
- Optimize blog posts around keywords – before starting to write a new blog post, take a little extra time to check your list of researched keywords and pick a maximum of two or three to optimize around. Make sure you include the keywords in your meta title, meta description, URL, header tag as well as main text body. You can check our guidelines on how to write SEO friendly copy here for more details.
Local SEO focuses on optimizing a website for local searches, “restaurants near me” or “restaurant in my area/city name” type of queries. If you target local customers then local SEO is valuable so keep on reading this section.
- Get a Google My Business account – Google My Business allows you to handle the way your business appears on Google Search and Maps. You are able to add valuable details such as an address, phone number, opening hours, add photos and manage customers’ reviews. So go ahead and create an account (it’s free) and claim your business (this includes a verification step) and fill in your data, making sure that you list your business name, address and phone number in the same syntax as on your website for consistency.
- Bing Places account – this is the Bing equivalent of Google My Business, you can go ahead and create an account and claim your business too, controlling how your business looks on Bing searches.
- Local listings – with local SEO, your link building effort should focus on getting inbound links from local websites, since the linking factor is one of the top signals in local SEO. While we don’t recommend buying links at scale from link directories, getting listed in relevant local directory websites is valuable. Also, you can think of acquiring links from local partners, local newspapers as well as industry-related local sites.
Summing up, SEO is a long-term effort but if you focus on the right areas and prioritize, you can increase your visibility in search results and grow your organic traffic.
Start by ensuring that search engines are able to access and see your website, do your proper keyword research so that you bet on the best search terms, focus on link building and creating high-quality content and pay attention to local SEO if you have a physical location.
And our guidelines on writing SEO friendly content are located here.
If you are already doing SEO in-house and find yourself in the dark, get in touch and we will try and put you back on track.