Table of Contents
- Search Engine Optimization - What is it, and how does it work?
- How do search engines work?
- How important is SEO? The benefits of Search Engine Optimization
- Different types of SEO
- Connecting SEO with your content type
- On-page optimization strategies
- Off-page optimization strategies
- Optimizing your technical SEO
- Status codes management
- Useful SEO Tools
Search Engine Optimization - What is it, and how does it work?
The term Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was probably first used in 1997, as the first search engines started becoming popular. Marketers quickly realized there was a lot of value in high ranking on search engines like Google, since internet users were much more likely to choose one of the first search results when searching a certain phrase.
Early on, search engines algorithms weren’t as advanced as today, which allowed for black hat SEO practices to thrive. Some webmasters would manipulate meta attributes within the HTML code of their website, attempting to score better in search engines. This led to excessive keyword stuffing, purchasing low-quality backlinks, and other shady SEO practices - all of which would nowadays be severely punished by Google and other search engines.
By 2004, most search engines implemented numerous updates to their algorithm to fight SEO manipulation. Most of these updates, however, were not described in detail - SEO practitioners had to carefully study different approaches to creating optimized content, eventually developing a set of guidelines that keeps evolving as the search results algorithms change.
How do search engines work?
Google’s search engine was first launched over 25 years ago, with its algorithms changing dramatically since its founding. Before we delve deeper into SEO strategies, let’s take a closer look at how exactly search engines work.
Modern search engines use automated bots called crawlers, which visit hundreds of thousands of websites every single second in search of information to index. On each page the crawlers visit, they look for external links to other URLs, which they also visit - and so the process goes on indefinitely.
Each search engine uses its own crawling algorithm, which is often kept secret from the public. Using the robots.txt file and meta directives, webmasters can control the behavior of most crawlers to optimize indexing for SEO. Sometimes, businesses might not want certain pages to be indexed in organic search results (e.g. with targeted marketing campaigns), and a lot of crawler activity might eat up a surprising amount of website resources.
As crawlers gather data from your website, they store it within the search engine index. Each search engine keeps an index of all discovered URLs, assigning each with different signals based on what they find in the page’s contents, including:
- Keywords and topic relevance
- Type of content on the page
- User activity on the page
- How recently the content was updated
- User experience
- Whether your content is helpful or not
- Content quality
- …and many more
Search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, or any other, are designed to provide users with relevant, high-quality search results. To achieve this, search engines use a ranking system to create Search Engine Result Pages or SERPs. For each query, a SERP is generated based on numerous criteria that filter through all the data gathered by crawlers.
Things like location, language, mobile-friendliness, and even page speed are all part of Google's algorithm, which is an extremely complex web of interconnections which SEO practitioners have been studying closely to decipher. While Google sometimes shares information about updates to their algorithm with the public on their Google Developers Blog, most SEO signals have been discovered through trial and error over years of studying the effectiveness of a range of approaches.
One of the latest additions to Google’s search results algorithm was the Helpful Content update (released Dec. 5, 2022), which introduced a system that rewards pages with “helpful and reliable people-first content”, while pushing down content deemed as unhelpful by Google. While the specifics of what exactly Google considers as helpful are fuzzy, the official guide to creating helpful content states that your content should:
- Be original
- Provide a comprehensive description of the topic
- Provide an interesting insight
- Draw on other credible sources
- Use a descriptive and helpful heading
- Avoid exaggerating and being shocking in nature
- Be shareable
- Provide substantial value, compare to other related search results
On December 14, 2022, Google also introduced the Link Spam update, which implements an AI-based spam-prevention system that detects bought and spam links, fighting inorganic link building practices. Sites that use such SEO practices will now be more effectively punished, with their positioning severely hurt or potentially being fully blacklisted from appearing in organic search results.
How important is SEO? The benefits of Search Engine Optimization
Most digital marketing strategies nowadays have to consider a SEO approach to the content they create. Why?
Because being ranked highly on Search Engine Results Pages is one of the most important factors dictating your online visibility, making it easier to find leads, build brand awareness, and increase conversions. SEO drives web traffic - according to data from 2022, the #1 result on Google gets over 27% of all clicks, while less than 1% of searchers even bother to click anything on the second page and beyond.
If you’re not positioned well on Google and other search engines, you might as well be invisible on the Internet - the only traffic coming in from backlinks. In most cases, that’s not something desirable, hence why SEO strategy is so important.
Different types of SEO
SEO is a complex field with many aspects, and includes tips and guidelines from web designers, copywriters, data technicians, and marketers. We can distinguish three different types of SEO: On-page SEO, Off-page SEO, and Technical SEO. Let’s examine each one closer.
On-page SEO is all about creating engaging, informative, and optimized content that will improve your rankings organically. When writing blog entries, articles, landing page text, and other types of written content, SEO specialists seamlessly incorporate specific keywords into high-quality content, increasing the page’s visibility.
Keyword research is a key step of on-page SEO. Survey your keywords carefully and evaluate search results under phrases related to your content. Plan out a set of fitting short- and long-tailed keywords, and consider how to implement them into your content without lowering its quality. Don’t overstuff your content with SEO keywords - a few valuable keywords are worth much more than many low-quality ones.
Everything that happens outside your website is considered off-page SEO. This includes link building, increasing brand awareness online, and gaining positive mentions and comments on other high-authority websites. These are all considered some of the most important signals for Google and other major search engines when establishing their rankings, which is why it’s so crucial to have as many high-quality backlinks as possible.
As you build your authority as an industry expert with specialized content, others will mention your website online, providing links to your pages and helping build your off-page SEO. Some marketers also make use of guest posting to increase their online visibility and gain more brand mentions.
Valuable SEO content is essential to keep a high position on search engine results pages - but there are additional technical SEO elements that webmasters will need to keep in mind. Site speed is one of Google’s ranking factors, and is crucial for keeping users from leaving your site while content loads.
From proper URL structure to utilizing HTML elements to fine-tune your SEO, a lot of components make up technical SEO. Some of the key things to keep in mind when setting up your website for SEO are:
- Website security
- Mobile optimization
- Removing duplicate content
- Page loading speed
- Data structure
- Site architecture
- …and more!
Connecting SEO with your content type
The types mentioned above are universal for all pages - but your SEO strategy will also need to match the type of content you’re making. Depending on what’s on your page, you’ll also have to adjust your approach to SEO. Let’s take a look at a couple of different SEO strategies based on the type of search results you want.
Brands with physical locations can often benefit from improving their local SEO, building their local presence and increasing online traffic from local viewers. Google assigns additional priority to local businesses in certain searches - if your business is not on the list in local searches, you’re definitely losing out on potential profit.
Location- and service-based keywords are the backbone of local SEO - make sure to implement descriptive long-tail keywords in your content that accurately describe your services and your area of operation. To find the right keywords, use a SEO tool like the Google Keyword Planner for keyword research. Remember to create a Google Business Profile to have your business benefit from location-based local SEO.
Uploading an image to your website might seem like a simple and easy process at first, but taking some extra time to optimize this process might boost your Google Images search results. According to data from 2018, more than 20% of all searches in the United States are made using Google Images - you can capitalize on these searches with a few SEO tricks.
Compressing your images is crucial to optimize not only image SEO, but your general website SEO as well. Images can quickly add up in file size, increasing loading times for your users and harming your technical SEO signals. There are many ways to reduce the file size of your pictures - tools like Photoshop offer automatic compression when saving your files. If your website is running on WordPress, you can use a plugin like Smush to optimize your images with a click of a button.
Alt tags can be added to images in order to better describe their contents for SEO and associate images with keywords. If the images fail to load for any reason, your users will also see the text describing the picture in its place.
Make sure there is no copyright conflict when using images from the internet - if you’re using stock photos, you’ll need a license to use them on your website. Otherwise, you’re risking receiving a DMCA takedown notice, or even being sued.
Google’s ranking algorithms are known to value high-quality in search results, original video content, making it a great way to boost your SEO strategy. Videos on social media platforms can generate additional traffic, which is why tons of companies have already invested heavily in platforms like YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram.
On-page optimization strategies
Before you start creating your content, you’ll need to know who you’re creating the content for. What are your potential clients searching for? How many internet users are searching for key phrases connected to your business? What type of content works the best for your competition?
The starting phases of on-page SEO involve a lot of research, finding out who your market niche is and what they are searching for - starting with keyword research.
Many SEOs simply look at a keyword search in their SEO tool of choice and don’t think much about where their keywords are coming from. Before the keywords, there were questions asked by internet users looking for helpful answers. Focusing too much on the keywords alone can make you disconnected from what the audience actually wants - use them as guidelines to steer you in the right direction, but focus primarily on creating relevant, high-quality content that provides actual value to your audiences. Most SEO specialists use a keyword research tool to analyze their web pages.
There are a range of tools, including the Google Keyword Planner, that can help you find out what your audience is searching for. A keyword analysis can give you valuable insights to use in creating optimized content - but remember to avoid keyword stuffing, which Google considers a black-hat practice and will punish websites that do it. Use your keywords sparingly, focus on high-value long-tail keywords, and don’t let them impact the quality of your content.
You can also use Google Trends to track popularity of search phrases, and use that data to keep your SEO always up-to-date.
Creating your content
Once you’ve figured out who your audience is and what they are searching for, you can prepare for creating high-quality content as part of your content marketing campaign. Group your keywords according to topic and perform a competition analysis - are pages that are ranked highly under your keywords of choice using images and videos? How long is the content on average? How is it formatted?
Don’t simply restate what your competitors have already said - try to find a way to provide unique value and your own perspective on the topic, otherwise you’ll have poor chances of ranking higher than websites that have already established their position.
Webmasters can use certain meta tags to optimize titles and descriptions of individual pages. For example, a meta title can be used to display a specific page title in Google and other search engines’ search results, giving your users a better insight into the contents of your website and improving your on-page SEO. You can also set up a brief meta description that provides a short summary of what’s on your page, displaying in search engines underneath the title.
Use unique tags for each page, and don’t make them too long. Avoid generic titles, and try to include your keywords where it makes sense (don’t force it or the quality will be affected). In general, you should try to keep your meta title under 60 characters, and your meta description under 160 characters - otherwise they may not display properly.
Apart from compressing and resizing your images properly, make sure to use image file names that are relevant to what the images are showing and containing keywords wherever it’s natural. You can also add image captions under each picture for additional context.
Search engines can’t always properly understand what’s actually on your images, which is why alt tags are used to describe their contents more accurately. You can use relevant keywords in alt tags as well, but avoid keyword overstuffing. Finally, make sure the images are displaying properly on mobile - Google prioritizes mobile-first pages in SERP rankings. Most website building platforms already offer this, but you can also use CSS code to implement it directly.
Internal links are links that connect one page of a website to another page within the same website. These links help search engines understand the structure and hierarchy of a website, and also provide a way for users to navigate the site.
Internal links can be used to:
- Help search engines understand the importance and relevance of different pages on the website.
- Pass "link juice" (a term used to describe the value passed by links) from one page to another, helping to boost the ranking of the linked-to page.
- Allow users to easily navigate the site, which can improve the user experience and reduce bounce rate.
It's important to use descriptive and relevant anchor text when creating internal links, so that both users and search engines can understand the context and the purpose of the link. Don’t simply fill your articles with tons of internal links attached to keyword anchors - use a few relevant links that actually make sense within the article.
Off-page optimization strategies
While your content is a fundamental part of your SEO, there are factors outside your website as well that matter just as much. In contrast to popular belief, off-page SEO is actually much more than just link building - let’s examine it in more detail.
Link building: what is it?
In modern marketing, link building is all about quality, not quantity. Large amounts of low-quality backlinks can now harm a website’s SEO, while high-authority websites transfer some of their authority onto the website they are linking to.
One of the best ways of developing your link building strategy is through guest posting, posting high-quality articles published by reliable and relevant sources. Brands can cooperate with blogs and content marketing platforms like WhitePress® to benefit both sides, improving your SEO and establishing you as an industry expert, while providing valuable and readable content for the publisher.
Being recognizable on the internet means that other websites will post backlinks to your pages, and users will share your content with friends and families. Brand awareness is key for SEO, as Google judges websites on the basis of their credibility.
Google believes in the E-A-T principle - Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. Feedback from actual users and how they interact with your website will impact your searchability, and gaining authority by delivering informative, high-quality content will mark you as credible.
Social media can be a major off-page SEO factor, building engagement and increasing traffic to your website. Social media presence can benefit both your SERP rankings and your credibility, which makes it a worthy communication channel to consider investing in.
Optimizing your technical SEO
Technical SEO is all about your backend and how well optimized your website is. Let’s take a closer look at some of the main technicalities you should examine when optimizing your website:
Understanding technical optimizations for websites is key for SEO. SEO specialists work in cooperation with IT technicians and software engineers to create efficient websites that run fast and are secure.
Google uses PageSpeed Insights for assessing Core Web Vitals and user experience on websites, testing various metrics to see how well each page performs. You can analyze your website at all times with PageSpeed insights to receive a PageSpeed score along with suggestions that will help you make your website run faster and rank better on SERPs.
Cybersecurity is of key importance to SEO. When your website falls prey to an attack that makes it redirect users to shady, third-party websites, generate internal server errors, cause content to go missing, or expose your users to malicious code, your SEO rankings are bound to dramatically fall.
In addition, back in 2014 Google themselves announced that websites using an SSL certificate will receive an SEO boost and display as default results for internet users. Implementing an SSL certificate and changing your pages to HTTPS should be a high priority for webmasters, since in 2018 Google stated that all HTTP pages will be marked as not secure, in contrast to HTTPS pages.
Switching to HTTPS is much easier now than it was a couple of years ago - with several ways to receive a free certificate as well. You can find out more on how to enable HTTPS on your server on Google’s dev blog.
A proper URL structure is key to improving your technical SEO signals. Standardize your URLs, and use high-traffic keywords when creating the URL structure. Keep your URLs short, as it makes them easier to read and share for users.
Crawlability dictates how well search engine crawlers can access your pages and their contents. Without crawling, your page won’t be properly indexed, affecting your SEO extensively. To improve crawlability, keep an updated sitemap and robots.txt file, and make sure your backlinks aren’t marked as nofollow links.
Implementing Schema markup
Schema markup, also known as structured data, can be added to a website's HTML code to provide additional information about the content on the page. This information is used by search engines to better understand the content of the page, and to display it in a more informative and visually appealing way in search results.
Schema markup can be used to provide information about a wide variety of content types, such as:
- Products and services
- Reviews and ratings
- Businesses and organizations
- People and events
- Recipes and articles
By providing this additional information, Schema markup can help search engines understand the context and relevance of a page, and can also help the page to appear in rich snippets or featured snippets in search results, which can increase its visibility and click-through rate.
In terms of SEO, Schema markup can increase the visibility of a website in search results, by providing the search engines with more information about the content of the website, which can improve its relevance and the chances of ranking higher in SERPs. It can also help increase your click-through rate (CTR) by providing more information and context in the search results.
Status codes management
HTTP status codes are three-digit numbers that are returned by a web server in response to a request from a browser or search engine crawler. They indicate the status of the requested resource, and can provide information about whether the request was successful or if there were any errors.
Some of the most common HTTP status codes are:
- 200 OK: The request was successful and the requested resource is being returned.
- 301 Moved Permanently: The requested resource has been permanently moved to a new location. This status code is often used in conjunction with redirects.
- 404 Not Found: The requested resource could not be found on the server.
- 500 Internal Server Error: An error occurred on the server, and the request could not be fulfilled.
These codes are relevant for SEO because they can provide information about the status of a page to search engines, and can indicate whether a page is available for crawling or if there are any issues with the page. For example, if a search engine crawler requests a page and receives a 404 status code, it will know that the page doesn't exist anymore, and it should be removed from the search engine's index. On the other hand, if it receives a 200 status code, it knows that the page is active, and it can be indexed and included in search results.
Search engines also use redirects to pass link equity (value passed through links) from the old pages to the new ones. A 301 redirect indicates that the page has permanently moved and that the search engines should pass the link equity to the new page. Overall, HTTP status codes are an important way for search engines to understand the state of a website, and to ensure that they are indexing current and accurate information in their search results.
URL canonicalization is the process of choosing the main URL of a website when there are multiple URLs available for the same content. This is often the case when a website has multiple ways of accessing the same content, for example through different URLs, different protocols (http vs https), or through www and non-www subdomains.
For example, the following URLs may all point to the same content:
When search engines crawl a website, they may index multiple versions of the same page if they are accessible through different URLs. This can dilute the link equity (value passed through links) and cause confusion for search engines, as they may not know which version of the page to include in the search results.
To solve this problem, website owners can use the “rel=canonical” tag to indicate the preferred version of a URL to search engines. This tells the search engines which version of the page should be considered the "canonical" version, and should be used in the search results.
Canonicalization is relevant for SEO because it helps search engines understand the structure of a website, and makes it simpler to figure out which version of a page should be indexed. It also helps you avoid duplicate content issues, where the same content can be accessed through different URLs, which can affect the ranking of a website.
Since 2018, Google has implemented a full mobile-first indexing rule, which makes having your website compatible with mobile screens extremely important. Even if your business doesn’t rely on mobile users as much, your SEO will still be impacted based on your site’s mobile performance.
To help create fast and streamlined mobile pages, Google started its Accelerated Mobile Pages Project - an open-source standard for creating fast-loading websites optimized for mobile user experience.
Core Web Vitals
Core Web Vitals are a set of performance metrics that measure the loading speed, interactivity, and visual stability of a website. These metrics are considered important for providing a good user experience and were defined by Google as part of their Web Vitals initiative. The Core Web Vitals are:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): Measures loading speed and is the time it takes for the largest element on the page (e.g. an image, a video, or a block of text) to fully load.
- First Input Delay (FID): Measures interactivity and is the time it takes for a website to respond to the first user interaction, such as clicking a button or filling out a form.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Measures visual stability and is a measure of the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible elements.
These metrics are relevant to SEO because they are directly related to the user experience, which is a key ranking factor for search engines. A fast loading, interactive and visually stable website is more likely to keep users engaged and reduce bounce rate. Search engines, including Google, are placing more emphasis on user experience, and it is expected that these metrics will be used as a ranking factor in the future.
Improving Core Web Vitals can lead to better search engine visibility and higher rankings in SERP, as well as better conversion rates and user engagement. Websites that score well on Core Web Vitals are more likely to provide a better user experience and will be rewarded by search engines.
Useful SEO Tools
While SEO is a complex and difficult work, specialists have a range of tools at their disposal to aid them in their struggle to discover the secrets of search engine algorithms. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular ones:
- Google Analytics: A free web analytics service that tracks and reports website traffic, which can be used to measure your website's performance and identify areas for improvement. One of the most advanced and powerful free tools available.
- Google Search Console: A free application that helps you monitor and maintain your website's performance in Google search results. It also enables you to submit sitemaps and track keyword rankings.
- SEMrush: A paid tool that offers a wide range of features including keyword research, competitor analysis, and backlink tracking.
- Ahrefs: another paid tool that offers similar features as SEMrush, but with a different approach. Ahrefs is more focused on backlink analysis and content research.
- Yoast SEO: A popular WordPress plugin that helps you optimize your website's content for search engines.
- Moz: Offers both free and paid tools to help with keyword research, link building, and site audits.
- Website crawlers like ScreamingFrog: find broken links, analyze your website structure, audit redirects, and gather key onsite data for optimal SEO.
How to learn SEO?
If you want to learn Search Engine Optimization but have no clue where to start, here are some tips to help you on your way:
- Start with the basics - Understand how search engines work and what factors they use to rank websites. This knowledge is essential to understanding how SEO works.
- Read SEO blogs and articles - Stay up-to-date on the latest SEO trends and best practices by reading blogs and articles from reputable sources.
- Watch SEO tutorials and webinars - There are many tutorials and webinars available that can help you learn about specific SEO techniques and strategies.
- Experiment and practice - The best way to learn SEO is to experiment with different techniques and strategies on your own website or blog. This will help you to understand how different changes impact your search engine rankings.
- Get certified - You can take courses or certifications like Google Analytics, Google Ads, Bing Ads and Hubspot's Inbound Marketing, to gain more knowledge and credibility.
- Keep learning - SEO is a constantly evolving field, so it's important to keep learning and experimenting to stay up-to-date with the latest best practices and trends. Explore SEO podcasts, attend SEO conferences, and follow SEO experts on Twitter for professional advice.
Avoid duplicate content
Finally, you should definitely avoid having more than one version of the same content available on multiple of your URLs. This may result in both pages receiving lower ranking, as algorithms will be confused which one to rank higher.
Each of your pages should be mostly composed of unique content - otherwise, not only will your SEO effectiveness drop, but your audience won’t be able to find the right page that they’re looking for.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a constantly developing field in which approaches change on a daily basis, sparking tons of debate. The only way to succeed in SEO is to do your research right, create high-quality content, and observe which strategies work and react accordingly. Don’t expect results in a day after changing your SEO approach - give it some time and observe the changes as the passes over at least half a year.