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What is SEO? A Beginner’s Guide

Updated: Sep 29, 2023


“Just Google it.”


If you’ve asked a work colleague for help, ran into a problem you can’t solve, or simply had a question lingering on your mind, the chances are you’ve heard this solution repeated to you many times before. And it’s good advice. When you have access to a wealth of knowledge built from the experiences of millions and millions of people at your fingertips, it makes sense that you should use it as often as you can.


For aspiring marketers, understanding SEO is non-negotiable. 61% of marketers reported that growing SEO was a top inbound marketing priority for them, and 49% say organic search has the best ROI of any marketing channel. The majority of sales begin online, even if they eventually lead to in-store purchases. This highlights the importance of investing in SEO.


So why doesn’t everyone take full advantage of SEO already?


The main reason is that SEO can seem like a tough area to get into at first. Ironically, by doing a quick google search to better understand SEO, it’s common to run into a whole host of complicated jargon and in depth terms that a beginner won’t know about, even though you don’t actually need to know everything about SEO to learn what it is and use it effectively. Throw in the fact that, as an inbound marketing technique, SEO is very slow to reap rewards for your hard work, results are not necessarily guaranteed against huge competition from the rest of the internet, and messing it up can even decrease traffic if you aren’t careful, and the reason some people avoid SEO becomes a little clearer.


Not to worry though. This guide is written with the novice marketer in mind, and with enough time and a willingness to learn, anyone can master SEO. As a first step, let’s understand what SEO is, why it’s important, and how it works.


Man pointing to a search bar with his finger
Image by DilokaStudio on freepik.com


What is SEO?


SEO stands for search engine optimisation, and is a process that increases a website’s visibility for unpaid, organic search results using a search engine. Simply put, SEO ensures that when a user types a query into somewhere like Google, they get results that are both relevant and trustworthy. The search engine does this by finding sites on the internet and then ranking them based on a variety of different factors depending on the search query, but we’ll cover this system in depth a bit later.


Why is SEO important?


Some of the benefits of SEO have already been stated, like the excellent ROI and the sheer amount of online searches that result in sales for any business, but there’s so much more to it than that. For one, the true value of SEO is that it doesn’t just bring in more website traffic, but high-intent website traffic. Because organic search results appear based on the user’s search engine query, your website will appear for people who have expressed interest in your industry, and have often declared an interest in taking action (e.g. a user that searches ‘buy men’s skincare’ clearly has the intent to purchase something from one of the websites they land on).


Another great thing about SEO is that, provided you have multiple pages on your website, your business can use it to stay relevant at every stage of the buying process. For example, if your business runs an online blog, you can tailor your blog’s SEO to show up when your leads are at the beginning of their journey and looking for information on their problem rather than a solution. This ensures that when the time to buy comes around, your store page will show up for them again. When those same users realise your business already helped them out earlier, the deal is as good as done.


So how do you use SEO effectively and make the front page of Google? This comes from having a good understanding of how search engines work, which means taking a few complicated processes and defining them in easy to understand terms.


How does SEO work?


To make an exhaustive list of everything that goes into the ranking system of search engines would be extremely difficult to cover in a single blog, as well as wholly unnecessary for anyone just getting started in SEO. Instead, it’s more important to get down that a search engine has three main processes it uses to work:


  1. Crawling: the search engine sends out bots whose main function is to ‘crawl’ (or ‘read through’) the code and content of a web page. Think of this like the search engine scanning a website and translating it.

  2. Indexing: pages found during the crawling stage are ‘indexed’, meaning they are stored and organised in a way that allows them to show up in search engine results.

  3. Ranking: pages that are indexed are then ordered based on their perceived relevance and quality with regards to a user’s search query.


In short, a search engine looks for web pages, reads through them, neatly stores them away, and then presents them in an order it thinks is most likely to give the user what they want based on what they searched. Simple enough, right?


You may be wondering what the words ‘quality’ and ‘relevance’ mean in the eyes of a search engine. Relevance looks at things like the keywords used on a site, the language used, and the search intent and skill of a user, among other things. As for quality, this is much more broadly defined. Variables like the amount of links to and from a page, page loading speed, mobile friendliness, unique content, and past webpage engagement all factor in somewhat.


If you don’t recognise some of these terms yet, keep calm. In the next section of SEO strategy, we’ll be going over them all one by one until you’re an SEO expert.


SEO Strategy


An SEO strategy is a plan of action that aims to use SEO to improve the frequency and quality of website traffic generated via search engines. In order to understand how all the different features of SEO are related, it’s best to think of SEO in three different parts: on-page, off-page, and technical.


On-Page SEO


On-page SEO refers to any changes made specifically to the web page itself for the benefit of users and search engines. This includes things like content, title tags, URLs, etc. Below we’ll go over some of the main on-page SEO elements that you need to know.


Keywords


Keywords are perhaps the most important and most well-known tool for SEO. A keyword is a word or phrase that defines what your content is about, while also making it easier for both users and search engines to find. While the concept is easy to understand, effective use of keywords is a bit trickier, and often requires some time spent on keyword research to identify the best keywords to use. The overall strength of a keyword can be understood as a combination of these four different factors:


  1. Search volume: how many people are searching for the specific keyword using a search engine, usually measured by the amount of searches per month. A higher search volume means a higher potential audience, but can also mean more competition.

  2. Relevance: the relevance of a keyword is not decided by a yes or no answer to whether it’s vaguely relevant to the user’s search, but also values how specific the keyword is. To look at an example, a beauty brand might sell makeup products that are often given as birthday gifts. But using the keyword ‘birthday gifts’ would be far too broad to yield any meaningful results. On the other hand, using a keyword like ‘makeup gifts for her’ would be much more effective, as it becomes more relevant by including the industry (makeup) and gender (her) for the search engine to work with.

  3. Competition: how heavily contested the keyword is by other pages on the internet. Highly contested keywords risk your page being lost in the crowd, but low competition means less people will be searching for your page in general.

  4. Conversion value: how likely the keyword is to not just bring in traffic, but bring in the high-intent traffic we discussed earlier that provides some value (making a purchase, giving contact info, etc.). Conversion value often benefits from taking into account where the user is in the buying process when your web page will be most useful for them, and picking keywords to reflect that.


With these four things in mind, keyword research is a great way to start identifying possible keyword candidates and compare them to one another until you have a good idea of what you want. Here are a few tips to guide your research:


  • A good way to start your research is to find a website with online keyword tools such as SEMRush, and use these tools to enter words or phrases that you imagine your typical user would use when trying to find what your web page includes. Try to think about what kind of language they use, how they would approach answering their problem, the main topics they search for, and so on. When in doubt, it’s probably better to make a list of keywords that risks being too big and then narrow it down later.

  • It’s very rare that you’ll find a keyword that excels in all four of these areas, so often the best thing to do is to find a compromise, either by balancing each factor or picking a keyword that excels in a couple of them.

  • Similarly, be realistic with your keywords. If you’re a new business, trying to compete with keywords that have the highest search volume and competition is probably a waste of time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use any of them ever, but try to include some lesser used keywords as well to separate yourself from the crowd. If there’s low hanging fruit with incredibly low search volume or competition, but relatively high relevance and conversion value in comparison, then take it!

  • If you’re doing keyword research for a page that is already up and running, you can use analytical sites/tools to check which terms your page is already ranking for. This means you can abandon the lesser keywords while keeping or adding new stronger ones to the list.


So how should you use keywords once you find them, and how many should you include on a page? The answer to both of these questions is, it depends.


The number of keywords depends on the amount of content and the word count of the page. Longer pages will allow for more keywords, while shorter ones risk being accidentally marked as keyword spam. Search engines are wary of pages that seek to spam keywords to game the system, and therefore frown upon pages that integrate keywords in a way that doesn’t read naturally, which is more likely to happen for shorter pages.


Ideally, you should include one primary keyword – which is the most relevant keyword to your page – as well as the main keyword the search engine will use to rank your page. Alongside your primary keyword, you’ll want to include a few secondary keywords, which still guide search engines in a way, but are less important. The correct amount of secondary keywords is ‘however many keywords it takes to fully cover your page’s topic’. If you don’t know how many that is, then 3-5 secondary keywords is a good starting point.


As for where to include these keywords, this depends on the kind of content your webpage has. The important thing to know is that using keywords other than the primary keyword multiple times has little benefit, and deliberately repeating them will flag your page for search engines to avoid.


Metadata


Metadata simply means ‘data that describes other data’, which is an easy way of referring to a group of text elements where you usually want to include your keywords. Let’s take a look at some of them:


  • Title tag: a piece of HTML code indicating what your page title is for the search engine. It’s strongly recommended to keep your title tags unique for every page. A title tag ideally doesn’t go above 60 characters, or it risks being cut off in search engine results, and it should include your primary keyword.

  • URL: the page’s web address. Try to trim excess words. (URLs will be covered more in depth in the technical section of SEO strategy.)

  • Headings and subheading (e.g. H1, H2): text that is given greater importance to split up the content of the page, both for users and search engines to navigate.

  • Meta description: an HTML element summarising the webpage content, and appears in the snippet/preview for SERPs (search engine results pages). Similar to the title tag, this should be 160 characters or less to avoid cut offs in SERPs.

  • Alt tags: text that replaces images if they fail to load, or is used to translate images for crawlers to understand/visually impaired users to recognise with text to speech software. Descriptions should be specific and to the point, while remaining relevant to the page as a whole.


These things will help search engines to properly identify what the focus of the webpage is. Sometimes using semantic keywords (synonyms or related keywords to your primary keyword) can also be helpful.


Internal and External Links


Links greatly improve SEO, though it’s important to note not all links count as on-page SEO. On-page includes internal links (links between different pages on the same website) and external links (links on your webpage that direct users to other websites). Ideally for external links you want to be linking to high quality websites (the ‘quality’ of which will be defined later).


Snippets


Snippets are the small pieces of text that appear in SERPs on the top of the page, which are often found when looking for definitions, lists or videos. A keyword will only have one snippet, so you’ll need to rank exceptionally high to feature in a snippet, making them difficult for SEO beginners to crack. Still, if you do find you have little competition for a specific keyword, you can target and potentially take a snippet spot by:


  • Answering a query in a short and easily understood way.

  • Formatting your answer to be included in the appropriate snippet form.

  • Specifically addressing the user’s intent.


Schema Markup


Schema markup lets search engines better understand your webpage, and provides it with additional information that will be included on SERPs. Schema markup can add different things, such as reviews, product postings, events, and people. If you have good reviews to show off or specific information that is important to convey immediately, consider using schema markup to give your page a boost.


Off-page SEO


As you might have guessed, off-page SEO has the same purpose as on-page, but instead refers to any changes made to something other than the website to improve SEO. There are many ways to optimise off-page SEO, but here are a few examples.


Content


Content can include blog posts, videos, product guides, social media posts, influencer marketing, and anything else you might create that has the option to link back to your page or earn attention from others. Content is also a great way to show E-A-T – expertise, authority, and trustworthiness – which will paint your page in a more positive light for search engines. If you want to know more about how to use content marketing effectively on your website, check out our existing blog on content marketing for more information.


Reviews and NAP


Reviews are an excellent way to improve your SEO, as not only can they show up in snippets for your page to boost your credibility for users, but they also raise trustworthiness for search engines. Using email marketing or other methods to encourage reviews on product purchases or use of your services is a must for successful businesses. Another thing that appears in snippets is your NAP listings (name, address and phone number). It’s important to make sure that these are readily available and consistent across all of your web pages, otherwise search engines are likely to decrease your ranking because of a lack of verifiable information.


Link Building


Including backlinks for your page (meaning links from other websites back to your own site) is probably the most impactful way to improve your SEO authority. But the number of backlinks isn’t the only thing that matters. The quality of these backlinks is determined by factors such as the popularity of the other site, how relevant the topics of both pages are to each other, and whether the link comes from a trusted domain.


As for how to encourage link building, there are a few different methods you can use:


  • Outreach: you can contact other websites in a bid to get them to link to your page, usually in exchange for something else, like providing them with useful content they can reference for their own work.

  • Guest posting: this involves publishing a blog or article to a third party website, with the promise that the copy will link back to your own page.

  • Online profile links: some websites (like LinkedIn, for example) allow you to link a website in your profile bio, which is an easy way to score a quick and trustworthy link.

  • Competitor analysis: look at your biggest rivals in your industry and learn from the methods they use in their own link building.


Technical SEO


Technical SEO covers any SEO practice that makes it easier for search engines to crawl and index a web page, while also improving user experience. While on-page and off-page SEO are still important, and often require more effort to maintain than technical SEO, technical SEO remains a kind of barrier to entry that is either passed or prevents your page from ever appearing in organic searches. You can have the best keywords and the greatest content, but none of that means anything if the search engine can’t read it, or if the user gets bored from waiting for your page to load. Here are some ways you can improve your technical SEO:


Implement SSL


Earning an SSL certificate (secure sockets layer) means your website has digital proof of its encrypted connection, as it creates an encrypted link between the web server and browser and scrambles the data during the transfer process. In English, this means your website keeps the user’s private information secure while it is being transferred between these two places, preventing any hackers or criminals from accessing it. You can tell if a website has an SSL certificate because there will be a small padlock system on the left of the URL, and the web address will start with ‘https://’.


Obviously, search engines prefer websites that are secure, though SSL is certainly not the be all and end all of technical SEO. If you do choose to gain an SSL certificate, make sure to make your SSL domain the preferred domain for your site, and convert existing non SSL pages to the SSL domain too.


Optimise website speed


Website speed is important for every website, and for search engines and users alike. The margins for website speed are incredibly tight as standards have gotten progressively higher; so if your site takes five seconds to load, a good 50% of your visitors will have given up before they even get to your home page. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to improve website speed. Below are a few of the easiest and most effective examples:


  • Compress any large CSS, HTML, or Java files.

  • Optimise and delete unnecessary code where possible.

  • Reduce the amount of redirects in travelling from page to page.

  • Utilise browser caching so visitors may store information on the website and avoid loading the entire page every single time.

  • Investigate server response time and make changes where necessary.


Optimise crawlability and indexability


As we have already covered, crawling is the process search engines use to read through a page’s code and understand its content, while indexing is how the search engine stores and organises these pages. There’s quite a bit of overlap in what makes a page easier to crawl and index, so here are some general ideas to improve both crawlability and indexability:


  • Remove duplicate/excess content.

  • Regularly update the XML sitemap for your website, or create one if you haven’t already (a sitemap is like a guide to how your content links together, while the XML version is a sitemap that is specifically created for the search engine to read).

  • Fix/remove any broken links.

  • Optimise site architecture (make sure pages are grouped based on relevance to each other, and that the more important pages are more easily accessible from the home page).

  • Use robot.txt files to disable or enable crawling on certain pages, depending on your needs.

  • Set a consistent URL structure (using your domain name [e.g. ‘lovedbrands.co.uk’] and then using either a subdomain before the domain [e.g. blog.lovedbrands.co.uk] or a subdirectory after the domain name [e.g. lovedbrands.co.uk/blog] to categorise different sections of the website). Note that subdirectories are generally thought to be better for SEO and are easier on the eyes for users too. Good URL structure also separates words with dashes, uses lower case, and removes excess characters.

  • Add breadcrumb menus (a visible menu that shows a trail of the path travelled through on a website to make it easier to navigate for crawlers and users, e.g. home > blog > marketing blogs).

  • Use pagination to separate different pages with similar content (e.g. numbering multiple pages of a website’s store page in chronological order so not everything needs to be included on one page, thus reducing the page’s load speed).

Monitoring and Tracking SEO


Even the most knowledgeable SEO experts aren’t likely to hit the mark on all of their efforts right from the get go. The thing that separates a good SEO strategy from a great one is the willingness to continually adapt and improve said strategy by monitoring its success using a variety of different metrics. There are a few ways to measure the success of SEO, and these methods sometimes need different tools: some use Google Search Console to gather data, some require the use of third party software like SEMRush or Moz, and some you might be able to measure yourself depending on the design of your website.


Regardless of how the data is gathered, here are a selection of the most useful KPIs to measure your SEO strategy by:


  • Organic conversion rate: the rate at which visitors take an important action when visiting your website, e.g. purchasing a product, signing up for an account, subscribing to a service etc. Possibly the most important KPI, as the end goal of SEO is to improve conversions.

  • Search visibility: how visible your brand is in its broader market in SERPs .If you are less confident in your keyword research, you can use keyword rankings as listed below instead.

  • Keyword rankings: how your website ranks in organic search results for specific keywords. Useful for weighing the pros and cons of each keyword included.

  • Organic traffic growth: the rate at which visitors come to your website from organic search results. Use this as a broad indicator of success before looking to other metrics for further guidance.

  • Referring domains: the amount of websites that link back to your website. This is most useful when you are consciously trying to increase the amount of backlinks your site has.

  • Core web vitals (CWV): three technical SEO metrics that report the largest element (part of your webpage) on the website, the delay between a user interacting with your page and the first point they can respond, and how stable your website layout is. Useful as Google tries to find the best website experience for users, and measures CWV specifically.


These KPIs are all good choices depending on your website’s needs, though it’s important to note that any metric can be useful provided it is applied in the right way. Organic conversion rate and search visibility are the metrics that come closest to being essential, as they measure broadly useful statistics that are also of great importance for a successful SEO strategy, while remaining relatively to interpret and fuel future improvements.


Conversely, there are a few KPIs that aren’t worth using for beginners, because their results can be difficult to interpret without a good understanding of why the data is the way it is, such as:


  • Average session time: how long on average your visitors will spend on your website before leaving (this is calculated by taking a timestamp from the user’s first visit and the last timestamp on the site). Unfortunately, a timestamp is only recorded when a user clicks from one page to the next – meaning if a user bounces from the website without clicking on a second page, only one timestamp is recorded, and the average session time is listed as 0 seconds, making it effectively useless given how common bouncing is.

  • Bounce rate: the rate at which visitors leave your website without taking any other action. It’s hard to define what a general good/bad bounce rate is for any one website as there are many variables like industry, page type, and user intent that may change it, so it’s hard to know what bounce rate is trying to tell you.


Remember, instead of blindly tracking a metric, think about what information you hope to gain from it, and what improvements you might make if the results are unsatisfactory.


It’s also recommended to measure at least a few different metrics to track the success of your SEO strategy. Comparing different metrics makes it easier to understand the data you get, as you can check them against one another to better understand the source of any weak points and how to improve them. This also helps to highlight the priority of which elements of SEO need attending to first. There’s no point thinking about improving your referring domains if your core web vitals are so weak that most of your visitors will click off of an organic link due to long load times anyway.


Also, if your business aims to eventually drive a lot of your traffic to an offline location, consider monitoring local SEO separately. Local SEO works differently to general SEO in aspects such as prioritising certain sites based on local intent search (e.g. ‘restaurants near me’), rewarding specific locations, and placing greater importance on mobile performance for a web page, as a lot of local intent search is done using a mobile phone.


5. Merge all the above into a set of brand guidelines


Brand guidelines are like an instruction manual for how a brand presents and conducts itself in public. Covering everything from visuals, voice, and values, brand guidelines can always be referred back to across many different channels and for many different purposes to ensure the brand remains consistent for customers and employees alike. Brand consistency is key for helping customers feel confident in their decision to do business with you, so guidelines are a must-have for every brand.


Closing statement


While this guide is a good jumping off point to start learning about SEO, keep in mind it is only a very broad view of a detailed and complex topic, and thus does not delve too deeply into any one area. But it should still prove that SEO is accessible for anyone… should you be willing to invest the time to learn it. If you’ve found SEO an interesting subject, then the good news is that the world is your oyster in terms of how far you can push your learning to achieve greater success with it.


If you're interested in reading more of our content, check out our five tips for an effective brand strategy.


But what if you still find the concept of tackling all the different cogs of an effective SEO strategy intimidating? How about if you simply don’t want to or can’t afford to invest so much time into learning SEO yourself, or maybe you simply want to focus on the other parts of your marketing strategy, and have the ability to do so with a clear mind, knowing the SEO side of things is already taken care of?


We at Loved Brands can help. We offer a range of services to give you an effective marketing strategy, including web design and SEO improvements that will cement your brand as a beloved figure in your online industry. Book a call with us now and become a loved brand today!







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