What is SEO?
I’ve always said that digital marketing should not be complicated and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is one of the most theorized and complicated topics there is on the web.
The reason for that?
No one has the exact and perfect understanding of what SEO is and how it works.
There are some official definitions of what search engine optimization is. Here are some of them:
“SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.”MOZ, one of the most trusted SEO websites on the web
“the process of improving your site to increase its visibility for relevant searches. The better visibility your pages have in search results, the more likely you are to garner attention and attract prospective and existing customers to your business.”Search Engine Land, one of the most popular web media for SEO
Well, that’s great and all but I really want to make things as simple as possible. My life goal is to make digital marketing as simple as possible and to help as many people as possible.
Let me share my own understanding of SEO and how I try to explain the process for me.
My understanding of Search Engine Optimization
We all know that the world wide web is created based on web links. These links form the “web” that we browse. Thankfully, we live in times that there are search engines. Otherwise, we would have to go from link to link and hopefully we find the information that we want.
Well, Google, for example, does that for us on a daily basis. They crawl the whole internet (which is a hard task) and they find the most valuable for the end-user results (based on their own criteria that we call algorithm).
Okay, that’s great, but what is SEO, Viktor?
Well SEO is the process where you create your website around the current algorithm (the criteria that I mentioned) and we try to bring as much value to the end-user as possible.
The better the user experience and the higher value they receive from your website, the higher the chance is that you will be chosen for the top results on the first page of the search engine.
Okay, now you know the basic concept of search engine optimization but where do you start from? How do you rank your first website on Google (or any other search engine)?
Let’s dive in!
When do you start the SEO process for your website?
There are basically two situations and SEO expert can end up in:
- Before the website that has to be optimized is created;
- After the website is created and it is live and running.
The difference between the two is all about how you prioritize and execute your work but the main concept still remains the same. The second option is the one that you will end up more often than not and it is the situation that is harder to rank the website.
Because you need to fix the website while it is running and that’s really hard. Try fixing a car engine while the car is running… This is especially true when you are working on a website that has somewhat of good visibility and positioning.
Regardless of the situation, you are in you should start from the planning and the research. Good preparation and research bring good results. And vice versa. Poor research and planning waste everybody’s time.
Do SEO, not guesSEO. 😉
Let’s start from step 1.
Keyword research and mapping
Search engines work with keywords but I guess that you already know that if you are here and you have reached so far.
As you have noticed in this section we are going to talk about keyword research and the not-so-popular term “keyword mapping”. Both of them are super important but one has to come before the other.
You can’t map out your website if you don’t know what your future visitors are searching for.
That’s why we are going to start with keyword research.
You know what your site is about or what it is going to be about. In other words, you know your niche. Now you need to find your place in the niche. You offer specific types of products or services (or information) and you want to reach the right audience.
We have to talk about something really important and maybe this is the most important section of this article, so pay attention.
- Volume is not the most important thing about a keyword. Some groups of keywords might have a volume as low as 10 but 4 out of those 10 monthly visits could bring you more business than a word with a few thousand monthly searches.
- Keywords are split into different types. Some of them are informational and some of them are transnational. They have different keyword intent. This intent is the most important element of a keyword. If your users wish to receive information and you offer them a product or service then you won’t rank even if you have the best content, the best link profile, and the best advertisement. You just don’t match the user and keyword intent.
Please go back and read the last 2 bullet points again. Then read them again but out loud. They are that important.
These can make or break your SEO.
It doesn’t matter how good a website you have if you make your research and you provide the wrong information based on the user’s intent… you won’t rank.
Okay so how do you perform keyword research?
In my personal experience, I have two ways to start keyword research. Either I start from the product/service that the website will offer or I start from the problems the niche has so we can plan the products/services that the website will offer.
It depends on what kind of situation you are in.
Note: I will create an in-depth guide on how to do keyword research and what kind of tools you need.
Okay, what is this fancy SEO term and why should you care?
Well, this process is as important as finding the right keywords for your website.
Because if you don’t have your keywords planned and mapped out to specific URLs you can create internal competition between your pages and not rank even if you have the best content.
Another reason to have keyword mapping is that if you do manage to rank on the first page of Google but with the wrong page it could do you more harm than good. You can lead people to the wrong page and therefore lose potential customers.
So what is this keyword mapping thing?
It is the process that you implement just after you group your keywords into clusters. It comes just after your website architecture or in some cases, it basically helps you to create your website architecture.
It is a situation like the chicken and the egg.
Does the keyword mapping comes based on the website architecture or the website architecture comes from the keyword mapping… I leave the choice up to you.
This is what the keyword mapping is looking like when and how I create it.
You can see the simple structure: URL – mapped keywords.
I highly recommend that you create this keyword mapping document because it will make your life much easier when it comes to writing content for each page on your website.
Note: Read my full guide on keyword mapping here.
At the stage of your progression, you have a basic idea of what the market is looking for and where your website fits in the niche. You have your keyword clusters, you have split them into informational keyword clusters and transactional keyword clusters.
Now based on these clusters you create your website architecture.
Most of the time the transactional keywords will build your main portion of the website and it will be with higher priority (because it will bring you or your customer the much-needed money to sustain your SEO).
The informational keywords will build your blog section and everything your audience wants to know which is related to your products/services. You want to provide value but also position your product/service so you can convert from this type of content as well.
Okay, all is good, you understand all of this but how do you create this website architecture? What is the logic behind it?
The logic that I always have when I create website architecture is to think about a website like I order my folders on my laptop. The hierarchy of folders is the best logic that you can incorporate into your website.
You start from the most general topic and you specify with each structure level.
Let me give you an example. This article is about SEO, so let’s try and illustrate this with it.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the main topic. (If you choose it to be the main niche you want to be in. Otherwise, SEO is part of Digital Marketing and Web Development)
When you talk about SEO you have On-page, On-site, and Off-site optimization. These can be your subtopics (the sub-levels of your website).
After that, you choose specific topics for each of these levels.
- On-page: Metadata, H1-H6 structure, content, URL and etc
- On-site: Internal linking, crawling budget, HTTP/2, Schema.org and etc
- Off-page: Linkbuilding, Brand mentions, Brand reputation and etc.
Do you see? Each section grows like it is a separate website but it is part of the whole.
The magic comes when you integrate the website structure to work as one whole.
Content for your website
We have reached the point where you know what your audience wants and what pages you will have on your website based on your website architecture.
It is time to add content to this website.
But where do you start? Content means a blog, right?
As I mentioned earlier you want to rank your products/services. The reason? Because you want to receive some money on your investment as soon as possible.
To make the process easier, I will talk about an e-commerce project so we don’t have to mention all the variants and we keep it simple and concrete.
If you have everything we discussed so far and your website is ready to launch and all you need is content you should start in the following order:
Note: Before we talk about anything else we need to state something. All your products should have their basic description needs met. This is not an SEO reason, it is just a general marketing principle. You can’t expect to sell something that does not have enough information about. Your user should know what they are buying.
- You always want to start from your category sections (if you have categories). Why? Because if you rank a category, you are ranking multiple products at once. That’s why you want to write your category descriptions first. They shouldn’t be long. They should be between 300-500 words. Add transactional keywords like “price”, “buy”, “best” and etc.
- After you are done with your category descriptions you should prioritize the most important blog articles. They are so-called “pillar” articles. They cover the informational aspect of the problem you are trying to solve but in a general matter. (Take this article for example. I am giving you all the general information but I never go into full detail about how you should do something. I will create separate articles about this.)
- After you have your categories and pillar articles ready you have a choice. Either you continue and grow your supporting articles (the ones that you go really in-depth about certain problems) or you write your products’ descriptions. Based on your keyword research you should know which is more valuable for your business.
- Alright, you have the basic idea of what you have to do when it comes to content on your website.
Note: Read my guide on how to create your content marketing strategy here.
On-page SEO optimization
By this time you either have a live website that is up and running or you are close to launching it.
Now you need to take care of all the technical elements that are on the website.
On-page optimization is the process where you make each and every single one of your pages on the website as good as possible.
Something that I heard from different kinds of SEO experts is that Google ranks pages not websites. That means that you can’t rely solely on the rest of your website to help you rank your products/services or blog articles. You need to optimize them as much as possible.
What does the on-page optimization include?
Before we list everything, I can say that the most important thing for each page, each website, the absolutely most important thing is for the page to be indexable, crawlable, and not locked with a password.
If you have any of these 3 factors done wrong you will never rank.
There is no way a page that is not accessible and indexable can rank on Google or any other search engine. It is basically non-existing for the crawlers. They never reach it and therefore they can’t analyze it and add it to their database.
Having said that we can talk about the rest of the On-page points. Here is the basic list of things you need to check and optimize:
- Meta title – The most important element on your page for the search engine. Even if you don’t have any content, the meta title gives the topic of that page that is what Google uses to determine what you have in there. (Hopefully, the meta title matches the content on the website. It should.)
- Meta description – Something that loses value over the years that I have done SEO. It is still important because it is the second type of text that shows on the SERP (Search Engine Result Page). Why am I saying that it loses value? Because as of recent years Google decides whether to show the description you have set for the page or to show whatever Google thinks is the best snippet of text on your page.
- H1-H6 structure – H1 is the main title of your page, it also gives a lot of information to Google about what this page is all about. Think about it as the title of the book. It has to be only one per page because as the example I am giving you, there are no books with multiple titles.
- Media – Your pages should incorporate media elements. These elements keep the user entertained and illustrate everything that you want them to know. These media files have to be optimized. They don’t have to be large as in file size because they will slow down your page and Google does not like slow pages. They have to be optimized with as many details as possible. If we take images, for example, you should add ALT text, Title, Descriptions and etc. The more information and the easier you make it for Google (or any other search engine), the easier it will be for them to rank you higher.
- Internal and external links – At the beginning of the article, I said that the web is build based on links. Well, let’s say that search engines like it to keep it that way. If you add internal and external links from your pages then you make the search engine happy. That is not so simple but that is a different topic for another article.
These are the basic things you need to look for when you are fixing your On-page optimization. Of course, I will be creating an in-depth article about how exactly to optimize your website’s on-page SEO. I will leave a link here when that article is available.
Note: Read my On-page optimization guide here
On-site SEO optimization
On-site is another subcategory of technical SEO. Some say that there is no such thing because all pages form the website, but I would like to differentiate them from one another.
On-page and On-site require a different type of work and focus. When you work on On-site optimization you are thinking about the whole website as a whole. The way all pages interact with each other and you are more focused on the macro aspect of the website rather than the micro level.
When we talk about On-site optimization we focus on:
- Website speed
- Internal linking
- Crawling budget optimization
- Structured data (Schema.org) and etc.
These types of tasks are usually related to the way the website code is structured, the website design, and the UX and UI.
I will be creating in-depth articles about each of the points mentioned above but for now, let’s continue with our beginner’s guide.
Off-site SEO optimization (Linkbuilding)
Well if you have reached this point of your SEO optimization it means that you have a really well-functioning website with lots of value for your users’ content.
Well, now you might be wondering why then after doing everything that I mentioned so far you don’t see the results you expected? Why aren’t you ranking on the first page of Google with more than a few pages? What’s happening?
Don’t worry it is completely normal.
Even the best website has to be promoted. Off-site SEO is basically networking and advertising. You want other websites to talk about you.
Remember when I mentioned that the web is based on links? Oh, it gets kinda annoying, isn’t it? Well, that’s how the internet works.
You need to get links for your website. But how do you that?
If you ask Google experts they will tell you that links will be created by themselves. When someone likes your content, they will share a link about it and you will get links “naturally”.
Well, you guessed it. That rarely happens.
How can anyone link to a website that is not visible and does not run ads? Well, they don’t.
If you ask SEO experts they will come up with amazing strategies on how you can get links. Here are some popular ones:
- Link submits in website directories and catalogs;
- Guest posting;
- You advertise branded content;
- You build PBNs;
- Broken link building;
And much much more.
The strategies are limitless. You can break them down into three main categories:
- White hat link building (the one that googles likes);
- Gray hat link building (the one that does work and it is hard to get penalized from Google);
- Black hat link building (the one that Google will penalize your website for sure).
I will create an in-depth article for each type of link building. I will add links to this section when they are ready.
Bonus: The two most important ranking factors
There is something that I have learned from years of doing SEO for the agency that I am running. These are some valuable pieces of advice based on true experience and not just market research. I hope that they will bring you as much value as they did for me.
The first and most important ranking factor is … User behavior!
Well that’s kinda obvious, isn’t it? Well not for everyone.
During this article, I have mentioned a couple of times that the algorithms of Google are created to provide the best experience to the end-user and not for the webmasters. If you don’t provide the value and quality that the user expects then you just won’t rank.
This is true as for keyword intent, as well as your product and services.
And this goes both ways. If you are providing the best product/service on the web and the users are looking for you and reaching all the way back to the third page of Google to click on your results (highly unlikely but let’s stick with it for the example) you won’t stay on the third page of Google for long. You will rank better and better.
This leads me to the second most important ranking factor … the power of the brand.
We’ve all seen it. The worst website ranks in the top 3 and you wonder why!
Well if you reread the last section again, you will get the idea that the users decide who has to be on the first page of Google and who doesn’t deserve to be there.
Our job as SEO experts is to bring the website to the first page, but the users decide who can be in the top 3 of the SERP.
The reason branding is so important as a ranking factor is that SEO is just a channel for your marketing mix and not the sole purpose of a website. If the users know of your brand they will most likely click on it to check what you have to offer and they won’t click on a website they have never heard of.
That’s why you need to be a marketing expert before you become an SEO expert.
I really hope that this article managed to help you understand SEO better and you are ready to take your first steps into this amazing field of digital marketing.
The best thing about you starting now is that you won’t be behind. Search engine optimization is always evolving, each new algorithm changes the game you have to adapt. So there is no effect on the experience here.
Learn the basics, there are things that haven’t changed for years and are the same. Learn those. Master them and after that start testing. Start questioning everything. Even this article. I want to question everything that I have shared with you. Why? Because that’s what SEO is all about. Trying to find the best and most working way to rank on the first page of Google.
I hope that you have a great time on your journey called Search Engine Optimization.