When you perform Search Engine Optimization or SEO, you are attempting to improve your website rankings in a search engine’s unpaid results. In other words, it’s the process of getting more free traffic from search engines. It can be viewed as a set of rules to improve your website so that it could appear in a higher position of search results (get higher rankings).
Search engine optimization can help you improve not only rankings, free traffic, and revenue but user experience as well. These things are related much closer and in a different way than many people think. It’s a very popular misconception that you need to know some sort of “secret formula” and a lot of technical stuff to be able to write SEO-friendly content. There is a little bit of technical stuff, but it’s just a small piece of the puzzle.
Actually, a lot of important aspects of search engine optimization are nothing more than just common sense, and a lot of people do these things naturally if they’re actually putting effort into their work. Of course, if you want your online business to perform as well as possible, it’s always better to know all the details just in case you missed something. Here’s an SEO guide for beginners.
Here’s the table of contents for maximum convenience. It might be a little bit inaccurate for some users. If it takes you to a wrong paragraph, just go back to it and click again. Sometimes it takes a couple repetitions. Sorry about that.
I know it doesn’t look very good either, but at this point, I’m just trying new things.
- Keyword Usage and Research
- Backlinks and How (not) to Get Them
Why Is SEO Important?
Today when affiliate marketing is popular as never before, and the number of new websites is increasing exponentially, search engine optimization is becoming more and more important. Every single day millions of potential buyers are looking for answers to their questions and solutions to their problems.
The higher your website appears in search results, the higher number of visitors it gets. The vast majority of search engine users never go further than the first page of the search results! And even on the first page, the importance of position is pretty significant.
Here are more reasons why SEO is so important:
- Basically, online businesses can exist just because of search engines. How else would people know about the existence of a website if not from search engines? The main objective of every website owner is to rank as high as possible. SEO can colossally benefit your visibility in search engines.
- People tend to trust search engines. If your website appears in a higher position, potential visitors assume that it’s better than the competitors below. (Sadly this is not always true, search engines are very far from perfect). When people assume that your website is trustworthy, they are more likely to buy based on your recommendations.
- Surprisingly search engine optimization is primarily not about the search engines, but about user experience. An optimized website is useful, easy to navigate, honest and overall pleasant to its readers. It’s self-explanatory: if people like your website they won’t click away fast and they’ll come back to it later.
- SEO (and improved user experience) can encourage people to share your content on social media, thus delivering even more traffic and potential profits.
How People Use Search Engines
As we already discussed, to optimize your website for search engines, you need to focus mostly on your audience. You need to be empathetic enough to understand what people want and whether your website can meet these expectations.
The way people browse the internet is evolving over time, but the general principles of using a search engine remain almost unchanged. A typical search occurs when a person experiences the need for information or an answer. Then he/she:
- Formulates a phrase (query), which hopefully will match with the right information and enters it into a search engine.
- Browses through the search results (just the first page most of the time) and clicks on a result.
- Scans for a solution or something useful and relevant to their needs. I say scans because people usually don’t have enough time to read the entire article.
- If unsatisfied, he/she returns to the search results to look for another link or performs a new search with a different query.
Now let’s look at the data of several studies for even better understanding of how important SEO is:
- The first position in Google’s search results receives 18.2% of click-through traffic (traffic from a search engine). The second, third and fourth gets 10.1%, 7.2%, and 4.8% respectively. All other positions get under 2%. The total average number is 52.32% for the first ten search results! [Source.]
- In 2011, a study showed how much traffic top 5 search engines are sending. [Source.]
- The population of internet users is growing fast, and so is the number of search engine users. In 2002, 52% of all Americans and this number grew to 72% in 2011. [Source.] Now this number is obviously even higher.
- According to some forecasts, in 2016 online marketing costs should have approached $77 billion worldwide. If that turned out to be true, this number now represents 26% of all advertising budgets combined. [Source.]
- Very often people are using search engines to find information about local businesses. A study conducted in 2011 showed that 76% of U.S. adults used search engines to find a local business in the past year. 67% of respondents did that in the last month! [Source.] Now this number should be higher. People who use their websites to promote local businesses or business owners themselves should be really happy about it.
This interesting data helps us understand that a huge amount of online and even offline economic activity depends on search engines, tens of billions of searches are performed every month, the higher position you have, the more clicks you get, Google sends more than 90% of that traffic, and the number of internet users is constantly increasing.
How Search Engines Work
Before we get into the more detailed guidelines, it would be very beneficial to understand the basic principles of search engine operation. The whole work of a search engine consists of two main parts: crawling and indexing, and providing its users with a relevant list of quality pages (search results).
1. Crawling and Indexing: Search engines have various scripts called “crawlers.” They use links to find all the pages, documents, videos, media files, etc. on the internet. That is one of the reasons why links are one of the fundamental components of good SEO – links mean that your pages are easily accessible to crawlers. (About links later in this article.)
When the engines find these pages, they decipher the code and store the most important information in massive databases. When a query is submitted, relevant and quality pages need to be recalled in a fraction of a second. Search engines have huge data centers all around the world to accomplish that. It’s interesting on its own, but this article is not about that.
2. Providing Search Results: Search engines have various algorithms that can evaluate hundreds of variables. All of which are somewhat important, but only a few have really significant value. Search results are shown and ranked based mainly on their relevance to the query, popularity, and the number of quality of backlinks. Search engine optimization is an improvement of all these variables.
Relevance: a beginner might think that writing relevant content means using a lot of search query-oriented terms and phrases (known as keywords). Of course, without that, it would be impossible to write a relevant post, and keywords are essential for successful SEO, but their density is not really that important. In fact, too many keywords can actually hurt your rankings! (More about keywords later.)
Popularity is pretty straightforward. Search engines assume that the more popular a website is, the more useful information it has. Most of the time it’s true, but that’s not very fair. Older websites that already have huge audiences, basically can post whatever they want and still get way better rankings than smaller competitors with potentially better content.
However, it’s only very noticeable in the beginning. If you constantly post quality content, your website(s) will become popular enough to rank really well and even beat really popular and well-recognised competitors.
Backlinks are the links to your website from other websites. They can be viewed as recommendations. If a lot of other people link to your content, it must be something relevant and important. Links from popular websites are much more valuable because search engines trust popular websites and their recommendations. (More about backlinks later.)
These things might look a little complicated and hard to achieve, but keep in mind that tens of millions of websites successfully do that every day and the potential of the online business is increasing with the number of search engine users. That means you can do that too.
Search engines themselves provide pretty generic (but still valuable) information about how to get rankings, and from their perspective, it’s perfectly logical. They want you to earn rankings as naturally as possible, without speeding up the process. However they provide the very important basic, and by sticking to that, you can achieve great success.
SEO Techniques (White Hat vs. Black Hat)
There are many ways to get higher rankings in search engines. They can be classified as “white hat” honest techniques that follow rules and laws, and “black hat” techniques that often involve deceptive activity.
White Hat SEO: As the color of the type suggests, this term refers to the activity that completely follows search engine rules and policies. White hat techniques focus mostly on a human audience. That means the improvements of usefulness, originality, navigation, speed and overall user experience. A couple of things still need to be done solely for search engines, but that’s basically just to help them to find your pages and show that you have a quality and relevant website.
White hat SEO is common among people who are serious about their businesses and who focus on long-term sustainable growth and goals. A website which is optimized for search engines but mostly focuses on its users, relevancy, well-earned rankings, quality backlinks, and organic traffic, is considered to be optimized using white hat SEO.
Black Hat SEO: As the title suggests, this term refers to the activity that is in direct conflict with search engine policies. Black hat techniques focus on search engines and often exploits weaknesses in their algorithms. The content which focuses on search engines is often not helpful for users, and user experience is more likely to be poor.
Black hat SEO is common among those who want quick short-term financial returns on their websites. These results are very unsustainable because search engines are constantly improving their algorithms. If this happens and black hat practices are detected, rankings will drop significantly. A website could be easily banned from search engines altogether.
Somewhere in Between?: Some methods are far from what would be considered white hat SEO, but don’t really cross the line and can’t be called black hat either. Sometimes these are referred to as gray hat SEO.
Grey hat SEO is common among search engine optimization companies. You may or may not have heard about them, but those companies simply advertise that they can help you to get higher rankings. The pressure from their clients to deliver quick results for an affordable price, often push these companies into using questionable methods.
People have different opinions about these companies and their services (every service is different). But despite the sometimes affordable price and some positive reviews, most of the time there’s still some risk involved.
In this article, we focus only on white hat practices, because using black hat (or even gray hat) techniques is simply dangerous for your website. We will cover some of those in the future, but only for educational purposes. I highly suggest you stay away from those tactics.
Useful Content and Engagement
Everyone says that you should write useful and quality content to become popular and get rankings. But what exactly is useful and quality content and how search engine algorithms can measure it without being able to read?
That’s pretty simple. If users click on your page in search results but hit the back button several seconds later, this indicates that they were not satisfied with what they saw on your website. But if they stay on your page for several minutes or even left some comments, it means that your content was useful, interesting and worth their time.
If people are staying on your pages relatively long (preferably longer than your rivals’ pages), search engines will give you higher rankings and measure results again. If even more people will stay for the same or even longer period, your ranking will (most likely) increase again.
Basically, the ability to hold users for prolonged periods of time, get comments and social media shares is called user engagement. It’s one of the key factors of search engine optimization and online business in general. An engaging website will rise in search results until it’s among others with similar engagement.
Of course, that is if this website isn’t significantly superior or inferior to others in some other way (backlinks, layout, etc.). In which case, rankings can be much higher or lower compared to the websites with similar engagement.
How to write engaging content? Well, there is no right and universal answer to that. It depends on your niche. You need to be empathetic and intuitive enough to understand what your visitors are looking for. Try to look at your article from the perspective of a visitor and think whether or not you would be satisfied if you were looking for a specific kind of information and found an article like that.
People are looking for all kinds of different information online. Some of them are looking for reviews of items they want to buy or information about their holiday destinations. Others need information for their homework, out of curiosity, they want to check the symptoms of their possible disease, check the weather forecast or for millions of other reasons.
It’s understandable that your main goal is to sell something, but the majority of those people are not looking for something to buy. You need to respect that and give people what they want. It’s perfectly fine to promote something with a banner on the side, occasional product review or a couple of tastefully incorporated affiliate links in every article. But it shouldn’t be obnoxious or too obvious.
Ultimately, everything depends on the type of website you have, the type of information your visitors need and what keywords you are using in your posts. If you are writing an article “The Best chainsaws of 2016,” you should probably write an informative article with clear reasoning and well-supported claims.
If this article would be just a promotional campaign for one or two specific brands with hype and plain pushing, users definitely would not be happy. If you want to write a campaign, a title and keywords should clearly indicate the buying aspect. (Something like “The best chainsaw to buy in 2016”)
Keyword Usage and Research
Keywords are a vital element of search engine optimization. They show search engines that your content is relevant to what users are looking for (to their search queries). Without keywords, you can write the best, most engaging content in the world, and still don’t get any rankings!
It may sound scary, but again, that’s pretty simple, and you don’t need to know any “special formulas” to use keywords correctly. They are nothing more than just words or phrases people enter into search engines. Keywords are basically the same search queries I was mentioning earlier. When a person enters something, a search engine must find relevant articles based on matching words. Simple as that.
How Not to Use Keywords: So if search engines use keywords to determine relevancy, I should use them in my posts as often as I can to make them look very relevant, right? Wrong!
Back in the early 2000s, search engines were not very advanced, and this practice worked perfectly. But as always, people started abusing this obvious flaw by using keywords too often, or by putting thousands of keywords in hidden text fields and getting undeserved rankings. The same happened with meta tags. These methods are known as keyword stuffing, keyword spamming and meta tag spamming.
Fortunately, these techniques don’t work anymore. Serch engines have upgraded their algorithms. Now they pay little attention to meta tags and can detect unnatural keyword density. Most likely, they would penalize you for spamming or using the same phrase in literally every other sentence.
Correct Keyword Usage: Just write naturally with your readers in mind.
- Use the main keyword in the title. If you’re not using WordPress, you might need a title tag (<title>Your Title Here</title>.)
- Make sure that your URL address is the title of the post (http://yourwebsite.com/your-post-title, not http://yourwebsite.com/029847658937.) It helps not only with SEO but also gets highlighted in search engines, and more people will notice it.
- It would be beneficial to have that keyword in your domain name as well. But don’t worry about that, you can’t have many keywords there anyway.
- Quite a lot of people claim that search engines pay more attention to the first and last 150 words of an article. So try to use more keywords there. (Not too many of course.)
- Don’t forget to use keywords naturally throughout your whole post. By doing that, you are going to show search engines that a post is about that particular topic and it won’t look forced to your readers.
- lastly, don’t ignore meta tags (meta description and meta keywords). I have a plugin “all In One SEO,” which makes these and some other things easier. If you don’t have it use these tags:
- <meta name=”keywords” content=”my keyword, my other keyword”> These keywords are not important, but you can still fill it, and it might help a little.
- <meta name=”description” content=”My awesome meta description.”> This is pretty important. While search engines no longer pay attention to keywords there, but they highlight them for users to see. That can attract attention.
Popular Keywords are Not Necessarily the Best: Earlier we took chainsaws as an example, so let’s get back to it. Some of you might think that having the first position for the keyword “chainsaw” would be great because it has over 25000 monthly searches. But is it really the best possible scenario?
Popular keywords actually make up only about 30% of all searches performed. The other 70% are so-called “long tail keywords.” While you can get a lot of traffic from popular keywords, getting high positions is often very hard and can take years.
Long tail keywords are better in almost every way. The competition is low (so it’s easy to get high rankings), they attract people in the late stages of the buying/conversion cycle, and there are a lot of long tail keywords, which means that you will never run out of content ideas!
So in our example, a person who enters “chainsaws” is probably just looking for some general information and not ready to buy yet. Meanwhile, someone searching for “best price on Kobalt 80V chainsaw” has already made their decision and is obviously looking to buy a specific item. This long tail keyword has much more potential even though it has only a handful of monthly searches.
Keyword Research: Without keyword research, you would be just guessing what has the potential to rank well, and that would be ridiculous. To perform keyword research, you need a keyword tool. There are many of them out there, but I use Wealthy Affiliate keyword tool. You can sign up for free today and try it yourself. It has 30 free searches, and that’s more than enough to feel its potential.
There are many opinions about when a keyword can be considered good. Of course, the less competition and the more monthly searches, the better, but that’s very vague. Most of the time I’m trying to look for keywords that have less than 200 competing pages and more than 300 monthly searches, but I make exceptions pretty often as well. Generally, low competition is far more important than high search volume.
Backlinks and How (not) to Get Them
Figuratively speaking, websites are the cities and links are the roads between them. A big and important city usually has better infrastructure and therefore more roads connecting it with other cities. These roads can be used not only by website users but by search engine crawlers as well.
Crawlers don’t have many options to determine how useful a website is, so they pay a lot of attention to links. In other words, links can be viewed as votes for your website. And the more trustworthy the voter, the more valuable the vote.
According to some sources, backlinks are the second most important element of search engine optimization apart from helpful and original content with the right amount of keywords. Link building is the most important element of off-site SEO, and these terms are often used interchangeably, which is not entirely correct because there are a couple more elements to off-site SEO.
Not All Links Are the Same: Search engines have sophisticated algorithms that can evaluate each link based on many variables. As always, search engines themselves don’t provide much information, but after years of testing, people have made many accurate and logical findings.
I did my research, I can say that link value depends mostly on these aspects (there are more, but these are the most important):
- Popularity – As we discussed earlier, search engines trust popular sites. Links from popular and well-ranked websites mean considerably more than those from low-quality spammy ones. In fact, low-quality links can actually hurt your rankings. It’s also pretty important that you get links from websites within the same or similar niche.
- Trust – Not all trusted sites are equal either. For example, government or educational institution websites have even more trust. A link from them sometimes can have a significant impact on rankings.
- “Link Neighborhood” – Remember the example about roads? Links often go both ways. Quality sites point at each other, and bad sites do that as well. If a website links to low-quality content, its content is probably no different. And these websites often have many spammy sites linking back. Be careful with what you link!
- Freshness – Search engines like fresh and up-to-date content and the same goes with links. It’s important never to stop getting new links. Old ones are considered less important.
How to Get Links? (Questionable Ways): People have different opinions about this. I guess ultimately everything depends on your own point of view. There are many questionable methods:
- Link Exchange – Basically, you could contact other webmasters and exchange links. They link to your website, and you link to theirs.
- Forum Signatures and Blog Comments – Many people were (and still are) commenting on various websites and forums just to get a link.
- Various Directories – You could publish your articles on article directories and link back to your website. Blog directories are like yellow pages, and each entry has a link pointing to a website.
- Paid Links – Many websites sell can link back to you for money. Search engine optimization companies often can give you these types of links.
For some reason, these methods are still widely used today. Some of them might still work today if they remain undetected, but they are NOT supported by search engines.
They are highly manipulative and often close to black hat SEO. They were very effective back in the day, but now sophisticated algorithms are created to detect unnatural links and even penalize people who have too many of them. This guy is just one of many examples. He got a -50 penalty on all of his websites! That’s insane!
How to Get Links?(The Only Right Way): If you ask any search engine about it, they would tell you that all links to your website have to be natural. The only 100% legitimate way to get natural links, is to write quality and link-worthy content.
Quality content should be helpful, engaging and original. Some types of posts are more likely to get links than others. For example, data of researches and studies generally have the best potential. You can also share your original opinions, conclusions, or write about controversial topics (be careful with the latter).
Guest blogging is also a valid way as long as you don’t do it too often and don’t do it just for links. For those of you who don’t know, guest blogging is when you write articles on other people websites.
Social media is also a part of SEO, and it can send a lot of traffic to your website. Just keep in mind that almost all links from social networks have “nofollow” tag in them. Which means that they don’t count as votes for your website and doesn’t help to improve rankings.
How Long Does It Take to Get Natural Backlinks? I’m not here to create false hype – pretty long. How long exactly depends on you. As I’m writing this article, this website doesn’t have any links yet. In this case, it’s understandable, It has only 13 posts so far, and I changed the domain name yesterday.
It’s not impossible to get rankings without links. In fact, to get natural links, you need to have pretty good rankings in the first place! So don’t get distracted by false advertisements that sell links and just write some good content. Rankings will come naturally, natural links will follow and then your rankings will increase even more. It’s a never ending cycle where everything begins with rankings.
You can check how many backlinks any domain has with this backlink checker. Without an account, it has the daily limit of 5 checks. But you can create a free account and get more (or use a proxy server, which is not very nice). There are more checkers out there, but I find this one the most useful and professional. It shows not only dry numbers but titles and URLs of referring pages and even link anchor texts and URLs!
Paying For SEO Services?
There are some honest SEO service providers that offer their services at relatively affordable prices. At least there should be. I’ve never tried any of them and haven’t even considered doing so. Maybe someday, when I gain enough experience, but definitely not now, while I still consider myself a beginner.
Buying SEO services requires some serious knowledge, otherwise, you will be scammed (as always). Also, it often requires some money because some SEO packages cost $1500 a month or even more. All signs show that this is not something for beginners. And did I mention that most of the time you can do all those things yourself for $0?!
SEO companies always try to make everything sound complicated. According to them, you have no chances of doing all that work without some insider knowledge and professional help. Believe me, everyone can. There are tens of thousands of successful webmasters who haven’t even thought about paying for any search engine optimization services.
But if you feel ready and have some money to burn, at least avoid companies that offer:
- Guaranteed rankings – No search engine optimization company ever, can offer guaranteed rankings. It’s just a shady marketing gimmick.
- A lot of links and link exchange schemes – SEO companies that offer a lot of links often use borderline black hat SEO methods (so-called gray hat SEO). If detected by search engines, these can hurt your rankings. The same goes with link exchange. Also, it’s not only dangerous but often used as a threat – if you decide to discontinue service, you lose links.
It’s Easier Than It Usually Looks
If you did read this whole article, or even if you didn’t, it might look a little scary and somewhat complicated. It isn’t. As I said, I just wanted to write a helpful and comprehensive article that introduces you to every little aspect of successful search engine optimization just in case you missed something.
Most of these things are just common sense. To clarify everything, here’s what you actually need to do to optimize your website for search engines:
- Understand the needs of your audience by looking at your own posts from the readers’ perspective.
- Write original and helpful posts.
- Don’t just copy and paste!
- Do keyword research to find low competition keywords with relatively high monthly searches. (Less than 200 competing pages and preferably more than 300 searches.)
- Target one keyword with each post.
- Make sure you use the main keyword in the title of the post and naturally throughout the post. (Don’t try to force high density!)
- Try to help people instead of just pushing products or services.
- Encourage people to write comments and download a simple social sharing plugin.
- Write at least one post a week.
- Don’t participate in shady link exchange schemes and just wait for natural backlinks to come.
And last but not least, don’t expect very high results right away. Some people can go from $0 to $10 000 a month in several months, but those are isolated cases, and it requires very hard work. The more realistic expectation would be anywhere from $10 to $1 000 a month in the first year depending on your efforts.
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I know my grammar and punctuation is far from perfect. I’m working on that 😀