A Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO

By Catherine Toms

A good business website allows customers to learn about a company’s services, purchase its products, and sign up for more information: all key elements for growing a successful enterprise. However, creating a functional website is only half the battle — once you’ve built your site, you need to get it in front of people who will benefit from your product. This is where SEO can make or break your organization.

SEO stands for search engine optimization and, in a nutshell, it refers to how you optimize your website so that it appears on a search engine results page (SERP), like Google, when a user enters specific keywords. The World Wide Web is a messy mass of roads through which it’s virtually impossible to find your destination without search engines. As of 2017, 88% of consumers conduct online research before making a purchase either online or in-store, and studies show that the average user only looks at the top five results when they search for a key term. Given this, it’s worth taking the time to learn how you can use SEO to make sure your website ranks well on SERPs.

Improve Your Site’s SEO With These Tips

Rest assured: If you’ve created a website that’s not ranking well on SERPs, there are measures you can take to get your hard work in front of customers. Here are a few of the most effective ways you can ensure your website has strong SEO.

Research relevant keywords.

SEO is not only about driving more traffic to your website; it’s about attracting the kind of visitors that ultimately become customers. Knowing who your audience should be, and how to write content that’s relevant to them, is an important piece of the SEO puzzle.

Keyword research is your compass for finding which words and phrases will reach your audience. Use free tools like Google AdWords’ Keyword Planner and Google Trends to see which keywords you should target. This is also a good way to discover topics trending in your industry or topic area. For example, let’s say you’re trying to optimize this article. The first keywords you would think of are probably “SEO” and “SEO guide” because these describe the main topic of the article.

When you enter these keywords into the Google Adwords keyword suggestion tool, you may see some frequently searched variations of your keywords that you hadn’t thought of, like “SEO marketing”, “SEO optimization”, and “search engine marketing”.

Focus on long-tail vs. short-tail keywords.

When your site is just starting out, showing up on the first page of Google is nearly impossible. Industry leaders that have been producing content for years dominate all of the top keywords and results. For example, it’s going to be tough to outrank long-standing industry websites like Moz, Search Engine Land, and Neil Patel with the key term “SEO”.

Researching and creating content for relevant long-tail keywords is a great strategy for developing SEO. A short-tail keyword includes one or two words, while long-tail keywords are longer, more specific, and less competitive keywords or phrases. Think about it: If a user  searches the word “bed” (a very broad short-tail keyword), it’s unlikely they’re ready to click through to a sale. However, if a user searches for “French style oak bed”, they know exactly what they’re looking for and are probably closer to the point of purchase. Although you get less traffic from long-tail keywords, the traffic you do drive will be more focused, more committed, and more likely to convert.

Understand how to incorporate keywords.

Once you’ve identified your keywords, you can now tackle your on-page optimization. Be sure to place keywords in your:

  • Title tag: The name of the page that appears both in the browser tab and in the Google search results.
  • Meta description: A snippet of up to about 155 characters that summarizes a page's content, entered either as HTML code or in a designated field in your site’s content management system.
  • Header (h1 tag): A tag used to indicate the main heading on a page.
  • Subheaders (h2, h3, and h4 tags): Tags used for the creation of headings less important than an h1, which have a top-down hierarchy from <h2> to <h6>.
  • First 100 words: The introduction to your page.
  • Image alt tags: An HTML tag that should be used with any image on your site to describe what’s in the image.

Develop an external linking strategy.

Links to your website from other sites are stamps of approval, especially if your site is linked from authority sites in your industry. If you wanted an authority site to optimize this article, for example, you’d want the article to be picked up and shared by sites like Moz or Search Engine Land. Keep in mind that not all links are created equal, so building a handful of quality links is better than a bunch of spammy links. If a website with low domain authority and no relation to your field links to you, it’s not very useful (e.g., a random hotel linking to this SEO article.)

A few quick and clever ways you can encourage links back to your site and build authority include:

  • Citations: A citation is simply a mention of your business on a third-party website — typically a local business or industry directory, or an event or reviews site. Look for quality, trustworthy directories and listing sites in your city.
  • Creating and sharing valuable content: Sites that create and deliver relevant and engaging content to their users get better rankings. Fresh, regular content improves your traffic and increases the time people spend on your site, two important metrics that tell Google you’re a trusted, relevant, and authoritative website.
  • Guest posting: One great way to get external links is by writing posts or articles for other websites. Think about topics in which you’d like to be known as an expert (relevant to your own website/industry), and reach out to like-minded businesses or blogs that could benefit from a guest post feature. Make sure you include a link back to your own website to reap the SEO benefits.

Technical Requirements for SEO

A strong SEO strategy depends on your website speed, security, and site foundation. Without this technical foundation Google won’t trust you no matter how much content you incorporate. Here are three essentials for developing your site foundation:

  • Site speed: Users are impatient. If your website takes more than three seconds to load then your customers are out of there. A good SEO strategy covers all the ways you can optimize your code and images to make sure your pages load quickly on all devices.
  • Site security: Starting July 2018, Google will mark non-HTTPS websites as insecure in its Chrome browser. Chrome accounts for approximately 58% of the global browser market across mobile and desktop, so you may lose web traffic due to security concerns if your site is not HTTPS.
  • Mobile friendliness: Since we do just about everything from our phones these days, Google looks for sites that can be easily read, clicked, and navigated to across all devices.

How to Optimize Your SEO Strategy

If you’re not measuring your progress, it’s hard to know what’s working and what’s not. SEO success is measured by increasing your page ranking for specific keywords and driving up your overall domain authority. Although every business is unique and every website has different metrics that matter, Google Analytics will allow you to track and report the success of your SEO efforts. You can gather all the data you need to measure the impact of SEO on a page, including:

  • Volume of organic traffic: Organic traffic is comprised of users who find your site through unpaid search results. If organic traffic to your site increases, it means your site is ranking on SERPs and being found by users.
  • Bounce rate: The percentage of users who organically come to your page and quickly click away. A high bounce rate indicates you’re driving the wrong kind of traffic.
  • Conversions: A conversion occurs when a user successfully completes a desired action. The desired action could be clicking on an email, entering their phone number into a webform, and more. In order to track conversions, you need to create goals to track the site visitors from organic searches who are becoming actual customers.
  • Behavior: The duration of a person’s visit to your site, number of pages they visited, and time they spent on each page.
  • Keywords for which you’re ranking: Understand which queries caused your site to appear in search results.

Learning SEO at General Assembly

Whether you want to pursue a career as a digital marketer or just dip your toes into the world of online marketing, SEO is a natural place to start. In GA’s part-time Digital Marketing courses, on campus and online, learn how to conduct technical audits, practice on-page optimization, and utilize more strategies to help improve site rankings. You’ll learn the art of keyword research and practice writing SEO-friendly copy that engages your audience and  increases your site’s ranking. Most importantly, you’ll walk away knowing you’re up to date with best practices and armed with the latest tools and tactics to confidently implement SEO the right way.

Meet Our Expert

Catherine Toms is a lead instructor for GA’s Digital Marketing course in Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Smithfield Digital, a company specializing in-house digital marketing and custom training. With over 20 years digital marketing experience in Australia and the UK, Catherine has worked with hundreds of companies from big global brands to creative startups to find their direction, organize their approach, and implement the right digital marketing strategies for the biggest impact.

“The digital marketing industry is rapidly evolving with new tech and opportunities. With the right training and skills you can move quickly through the ranks, go freelance, launch your own business, or even work remotely.”

Catherine Toms, Digital Marketing Instructor, General Assembly Melbourne