What is SEO? Your Complete Step-By-Step Guide
Do you want to learn everything about SEO? Before I teach you how it works and how to do it, let’s first go over the definition of SEO, and then we will dive into how SEO works.
What Is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization. SEO is the process of taking steps to help a website or piece of content rank higher on Google.
The key difference between SEO and paid advertising is that SEO involves “organic” ranking, which means you don’t pay to be in that space. To make it a bit simpler, search engine optimization means taking a piece of online content and optimizing it so search engines like Google show it towards the top of the page when someone searches for something.
Look at it this way. When someone types “vegan lasagna” into Google, they’re likely looking for a recipe, ingredients, and instructions on how to make it. If you wrote an article about making vegan lasagna, you’d want people to find your recipe. For anyone to find it, you need to rank above all the other websites with recipes for vegan lasagna. It’s not easy, but that’s what SEO marketing is all about.
Let’s break it down even further: The majority of online searches begin with a search engine like Google. In fact, 75 percent of those searches start on Google.
To better understand how you can rank your content higher in the search engines, you need to first understand how search works.
The ultimate goal of this article is to help you understand the ins and outs of search so you can optimize your content to rank higher on Google and get more eyeballs on your posts.
Core Elements of SEO: On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO
When it comes to broader SEO, there are two equally important paths: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
On-page SEO is about building content to improve your rankings. This comes down to incorporating keywords into your pages and content, writing high-quality content regularly, making sure your metatags and titles are keyword-rich and well-written, among other factors.
Off-page SEO is the optimization happening off of your website itself, such as earning backlinks. This part of the equation involves building relationships and creating content people want to share. Though it takes a lot of legwork, it’s integral to SEO success.
SEO Strategies: Black Hat Vs. White Hat
I’ve always played the long-term entrepreneurial game, and I believe it’s the way to go. However, this isn’t the case with everyone. Some people would rather take the quick gains and move onto something else.
When it comes to SEO, going for quick gains is often referred to as “black hat SEO.” People who implement black hat SEO tend to use sneaky tactics like keyword stuffing and link scraping to rank quickly. It might work for the short-term and get you some traffic to your site, but after a while, Google ends up penalizing and even blacklisting your site so you’ll never rank.
On the other hand, white hat SEO is the way to build a sustainable online business. If you do SEO this way, you’ll focus on your human audience.
You’ll try to give them the best content possible and make it easily accessible by playing according to the search engine’s rules.
This image from Inbound Marketing Inc. does an exceptional job of breaking it down, but let me shine some additional light on these topics:
- Duplicate content: When someone tries to rank for a certain keyword, they might duplicate content on their site to try and get that keyword in their text over and over again. Google penalizes sites that do this.
- Invisible text and keyword stuffing: Years ago, a black hat strategy was to include a ton of keywords at the bottom of your articles but make them the same color as the background. This strategy will get you blacklisted very quickly. The same goes for stuffing in keywords where they don’t belong.
- Cloaking and redirecting: When it comes to redirects, there’s a right and wrong way to do it. The wrong way is buying up a bunch of keyword-rich domains and directing all the traffic to a single site.
- Poor linking practices: Going out and purchasing a Fiverr package promising you 5,000 links in 24 hours is not the right way to build links. You need to get links from relevant content and sites in your niche that have their own traffic.
Since Google penalizes sites that do these things, you’ll only hear me talk about white hat SEO.
There is such a thing as gray hat SEO, though. That means it’s not as pure or innocent as the whitest of white hats, but it isn’t quite as egregiously manipulative as black hat techniques can be. You’re not trying to trick anyone or intentionally game the system with gray hat. However, you are trying to get a distinct advantage.
See, Google’s standards aren’t as clear-cut as they’d like you to believe. Many times, they might even say contradictory things. For example, Google has said they’re not a fan of guest blogging to build links.
Now, what about guest blogging to grow your brand? What if you do it to build awareness, generate high-quality traffic back to your site, and become a household name in the industry?
In the SEO world, it’s not so much about what you do but how you do it. If you’re purchasing guest posts on sites that have nothing to do with your niche and spamming a bunch of links, you’re going to get penalized. If you’re creating unique guest posts that provide value to readers on sites that are relevant to you, you’ll be fine, and the link juice will flow nicely to your site.
SEO Marketing Basics: The Complete Breakdown
Now it’s time to learn how to do SEO marketing. Understanding it is one thing, but SEO requires a lot of action and time. This is not something you can make a change to today and expect to see results tomorrow. SEO takes daily actions with the goal of long-term success.
You’ve probably heard it before: “Content is king.” Bill Gates made this prediction in 1996, and it’s as true as ever today.
Because a Google user is happy when they find the result that serves their needs in the best way.
When you Google “quick and easy homemade mac and cheese,” Google puts all its energy into delivering to you what Google believes is the best recipe for homemade mac and cheese (that takes little time and uses few ingredients) on the entire web.
It doesn’t look for just the quickest recipe, just the easiest recipe, or throw out a bunch of online shops for frozen dinners. It tries to give you exactly what you asked for. Google always tries to provide the best experience possible by directing you to the greatest content it can find.
This means your number one job to do well with SEO is to produce great content.
That’s a bummer, right? You still have to put in a ton of work. SEO is no different than any other skill: great results come from big effort. Just like the best marketing in the world won’t help you sell a bad product, super advanced SEO is useless if you don’t have quality content.
Elements of Content
There are a million elements that go into creating high-quality content; here are a few of my most crucial ones:
Once, posting a piece of content with a bunch of keywords was the standard. If you were creating quality content that actually solved someone’s problem, you were a standout, and that made it easy to rank.
Today, content is much better, and many online businesses have blogs they use to add value to their site and rank higher on Google.
Coming up with great content isn’t easy, but the good news is, you don’t always need to create your content from scratch. You can piggyback off of what others have created but simply add more value and make your piece of content more in-depth.
The bottom line is that your content needs to solve a problem or provide a solution to whatever brings the reader to your post. If it doesn’t, they’ll quickly click away from your page, telling Google your piece of content isn’t solving anyone’s problem.
Google puts a lot of emphasis on intent. It wants to understand what the searcher is looking for when they type something into the search bar.
- Do they want to know something?
- Are they trying to buy something?
- Are they window shopping?
As the content creator, you need to understand this as well. You can’t create a piece of content about the “best ice fishing rods” and target “bass fishing” as your primary keyword. It doesn’t make sense because people don’t typically use ice fishing rods to fish for bass in the cold. Thus, you’re not providing the right answer to the query, and Google will know.
HubSpot set a benchmark showing that posting frequently helps with Google rankings. However, posting new content is only one way to signal Google freshness. There are plenty of things you can do with content you’ve already published to make it more up-to-date.
Going through and updating your content for accuracy, fixing any broken links, and refreshing old data with new statistics that are more relevant are all ways to show Google your piece of content still deserves a spot on page one.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of orienting your website to rank higher on a search engine results page (SERP) so that you receive more traffic. The aim is typically to rank on the first page of Google results for search terms that mean the most to your target audience. So, SEO is as much about understanding the wants and needs of your audience as it is about the technical nature of how to configure your website.
Here are the basics.
How do search engines work?
Search engines provide results for any search query a user enters. To do so, they survey and “understand” the vast network of websites that make up the web. They run a sophisticated algorithm that determines what results to display for each search query.
Why SEO focuses on Google
To many people, the term “search engine” is synonymous with Google, which has about 92% of the global search engine market. Because Google is the dominant search engine, SEO typically revolves around what works best for Google. It’s useful to have a clear understanding of how Google works and why.
What Google wants
Google is designed to deliver the best search experience to its users, or searchers. That means providing the most relevant results, as quickly as possible.
The 2 core elements of the search experience are the search term (the user input) and the search results (the output).
Let’s say you search “Mailchimp guides and tutorials.” This is a clear, unambiguous search. Google understands what you’re asking for, and it delivers a useful page as the top organic result—Mailchimp’s own page with that title.
From Google’s perspective, this is a very good search result and a positive user experience, because it’s likely that the user will click the top result and be happy with the outcome.
How Google makes money
Google profits from people trusting and valuing its search service. It achieves this by delivering useful search results.
Google also provides businesses with the opportunity to pay for an advertorial placement at the top of search result pages. The word “Ad” indicates these listings. Google makes money when searchers click on these pay-per-click (PPC) advertisements, which you purchase through AdWords. You’ll see these ads on more generic queries in particular.
Other than the small label, these search results look almost indistinguishable from other search results. Of course, this is intentional, as lots of users click on these results without realizing that they’re ads.
This is what Google counts on. Advertising revenues accounted for more than 80% of the $182.5 billion that Google generated in 2020. So while search functions remain its core product, it depends on its advertising business.
The anatomy of search results
SERPs consist of paid search results and “organic” search results, where the organic results don’t contribute to Google’s revenue. Instead, Google delivers organic results based on its assessment of a site’s relevance and quality. Depending on the type of search query, Google will also include different elements on the SERP, like maps, images, or videos.
The volume of ads on a SERP depends on what users have searched. If you were to search the word “shoes,” for example, you’d likely find a substantial number of the top results are ads. In fact, you’ll probably have to scroll down the page to find the first organic result.
A query like this usually generates so many ads because there’s a strong chance that the searcher is looking to buy shoes online, and there are lots of shoe companies willing to pay for a feature in the AdWords results for this query.
On the other hand, if you search for something like “Atlanta Falcons,” your results will be different. Because this search is mostly tied to the professional American football team by that name, the top results relate to that. But it’s still a less clear query. You’ll find news stories, a knowledge graph, and their homepage. These 3 kinds of results at the top indicate that Google doesn’t know the precise intention of your search, but provides quick pathways to learn about the team, read their latest news, or go to their website.
Since there appears to be no purchase intent behind the query, advertisers are not willing to bid for the keyword, so there are no AdWords results.
However, if you change the query to “Atlanta Falcons hat,” which signals to Google that you might be shopping, the SERP results change to feature more sponsored results.