What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving a website to earn a higher level of visibility in the organic (non-paid) search results for specific keywords to reach their target audience.
There are many different types of SEO, but these tasks can include creating unique title tags and meta descriptions, earning relevant backlinks from authoritative websites, creating high-quality content, and much, much more.
Even though we're focused on creating a website that ranks well in a search engine, we can't forget that, ultimately, a person will be interacting with our pages. Searchers are looking for solutions to their problems, whatever they may be.
Ranking is just one step of the process. Remember this when you're reading through this guide and throughout your work.
So, in other words, SEO is more about finding ways to provide value to your customers in a way that a search algorithm can easily understand.
Here's a breakdown of the topics we're going to cover in this SEO guide:
The goal of this SEO guide is to give you a fundamental understanding of search engine optimization. Reading these modules will teach you the basics of optimizing your website. It can also help you feel more confident when speaking with your team.
These pages are meant to be your introduction to SEO. For a more in-depth explanation, be sure to check out the more granular pages where I do a deep dive and cover these topics in greater detail.
No matter why you're here, consider this the starting point of your SEO training.
Why is SEO important?
There are many ways to generate inbound traffic to your website and which one you leverage depends on what you're selling and who you're selling it to.
However, every business needs a steady flow of new customers to keep operating. No traffic channel has more reliability, effectiveness, or staying power than organic traffic has.
Investing in SEO and ranking well in the search results creates a continuous stream of recurring inbound traffic from searchers who are actively looking for you. This stability and frequency of traffic is the cornerstone for generating long-term growth for your company.
Doing business online is a simple numbers game. The more eyes you can get on your website, the more revenue you can generate. With SEO, you can not only generate an enormous amount of passive traffic, but you can get it from the right people too.
How search works
Before we can get into optimizing your website for search, you first have to understand how search works.
In a nutshell, there are three main stages to how Google works.
- Crawling: Google crawls billions of pages every day using crawlers that are commonly called spiders or bots.
- Indexing: Google organizes them into a list, also called an index, so they can pull specific pages later when a user searches for something.
- Serving: Google uses an algorithm to show the most relevant and authoritative pages from their index for a particular query.
So, with that said, we can make some quick inferences about how to optimize our websites.
- We want our pages to be easy to crawl so Google can discover them.
- We want our pages to be easy to read so Google can understand them and match them to relevant search queries.
- We want our content to be valuable and authoritative so Google can show it first.
If you remember only one thing in this guide, make it these points. Much of your work will stem from these fundamental SEO principles.
How does SEO work?
SEO works by making your site visible to Google, optimizing it for keywords you want to rank for, and making it easy to crawl and index.
Much of this revolves around declaring the semantic meaning of each page on your site. This removes the guesswork so Google can identify and recall it later when it's searched for.
Whether or not it gets shown in the search results depends on the quality of the page. Google judges this on a few factors:
All of which can be accomplished with search engine optimization.
No matter what you're searching for, you're looking for a solution to a problem. You want answers which is why Google shows pages that are closely related to your query.
For instance, if you search for apple pie recipes, you want to learn how to bake an apple pie. Anything that isn't directly related to this topic is not relevant to you and shouldn't be shown.
Google has spent well over a decade refining its search algorithms to make the SERPs incredibly accurate.
However, just being relevant isn't enough. There are hundreds of different ways to make an apple pie and probably millions of articles on the topic. There's much more that goes into securing the top search rankings than relevancy.
This is where other ranking signals start to differentiate pages from one another.
Your website's authority is one of the most impactful ranking signals. High authority websites tend to rank very well in organic search since their content is usually well researched, accurate, and trustworthy.
Their pages can even rank well for keywords they aren't actively targeting.
So, how does Google determine a site's authority?
Backlinks. Inbound links have been the gold-standard for quantifying a site's authority for years and that's unlikely to change.
Think of backlinks as little votes of confidence. Someone, somewhere, found your content and liked it enough to take the time to link to it. That takes effort and that effort isn't lost on Google.
The more links you have, the more authoritative your site appears and, generally, the higher you'll rank in search.
How does this translate to actually ranking in the search results?
Let's say we have two pages (page A and page B) and they're targeting the same keyword.
Assuming that all things are equal (content quality, page optimization, etc.), if page A has more high-quality links pointed at it than page B, page A will rank higher.
Emphasis on high-quality. Link building is definitely in an era of quality over quantity.
Bombarding a page with a lot of low-quality or paid links won't make it rank well. If anything, it will probably have the opposite effect since Google has been fighting link spam for years now.
We'll cover this in more detail in the inbound links section.
User engagement is an important ranking signal. Not only does Google want to show the most relevant pages for search queries, but they also want to make sure that those pages are useful to the searcher.
In a nutshell, they want to know if a page solves the searcher's problem.
With how many different websites and types of searches there are, this isn't always a binary answer. Sometimes it can be a bit more vague and nebulous.
The best way to judge this is to use behavioral data to see how people interact with that content. These engagement signals provide Google with valuable insights about how well your content matched the search query.
For instance, if a user clicks your site from search and then quickly bounces back to go to a different website, that's a negative engagement signal. (It's also called pogo-sticking.) That's because this tells Google that your site didn't answer their question and isn't relevant to their query.
Naturally, you don't want Google to think that your site is irrelevant. This makes user engagement an incredibly important ranking signal.
Getting your pages to rank is just one part of building your organic traffic channel. Engagement is how you get them to keep ranking.
A lot of this boils down to you aligning the keyword and content to the intent behind the search, but it also comes down to how easy your website is to use. This plays a major role in whether or not the searcher sticks around after clicking.
So, encouraging positive user engagement metrics is just as important as creating high-quality content.
But what are good engagement signals?
Like much of SEO, it depends.
For a blog, it could be people reading your articles in full.
For an ecommerce store, it could be people visiting multiple pages, adding products to their carts, or placing orders.
Generally, good engagement signals are:
- High organic CTRs
- Low bounce rates
- High pages per visit
- Long average visit duration
- Multiple return visits
These are all metrics that tell Google your website is a valuable resource for these searchers.
Different types of Searches
Even though there are billions of searches happening every day, how people search for things falls into several distinct categories. Understanding these core pillars of user search intent will help you leverage your content better so it can reach and resonate with your target audience.
- Navigational searches: This type of search is done when someone is looking to go to a specific website. These are queries like "Amazon", "Target", or "D&D Beyond".
- Informational searches: These requests are when the searcher is looking to learn more about a particular subject. That can be anything from "how do I change a tire" or "why are sorcerors better than wizards in every way".
- Transactional searches: These searches are performed when the user knows what they want and they're ready to buy. Phrases along the lines of "buy an iPhone case" or "shop D&D dice sets".
Navigation search queries are when a searcher is looking to go to a specific website. However, they either don't know the URL off the top of their head or they don't have it bookmarked.
Think of it like using Google as an Uber. They know where they want to go, but they don't know how to get there.
These searches also lack a clear intent to purchase. They don't have words like buy or shop in them. They're about getting somewhere instead of buying something.
These searches are typically for brand names like YouTube or Newegg, but they can also be for terms like Columbia fleece jackets or handmade coffee mugs.
The majority of your branded traffic will be made up of these searches. You can take advantage of this by making pages that target specific keywords. Some good examples are your login pages, location pages, and so on.
Informational search queries are when a person is looking for an answer to a question, to find specific information, or to learn more about a particular topic.
They don't have to be in the form of a question like how do you train your dog? It could be a simple statement like train your dog to sit or train your dog. Even dog training can be interpreted as an informational query.
The beauty of this search type is that there is an infinite number of possibilities for how they can be phrased and targeted. While that might sound overwhelming, it actually gives you a great deal of freedom when building your SEO strategy.
It allows you to be creative with your targeting. You don't have to use specific trigger words like buy or shop. You can find a unique angle or overlooked keyword to make it easier to rank for a particular topic.
You can even drill down into the fine details of a topic to create hyper-targeted content for your ideal customer.
Transactional search queries are performed by informed and motivated users that are ready to buy now. They know what they want and they're already reaching for their wallet.
These searches have a clear intent to convert either right now or very soon. They'll include words like shop, buy, coupon, or download. A brand or website name doesn't have to be present, however.
All that matters is that there's a clear and present intent to buy.
Some examples of transactional searches are buy Nike running shoes or shop fleece jackets online.
The only drawback to this type of query is that you're doing to have to fight against other companies that are targeting these keywords in Google Ads.
Different types of SEO
There are three types of search engine optimization. Each focuses on a different set of ranking signals that determine your ability to rank in search. Understanding what goes into each type will break down the work that needs to be done and help you organize your strategy so it can be executed efficiently.
On-site SEO deals with how the content on your website is optimized. How you optimize your pages can have a major impact on their ability to rank in organic search.
This type of search marketing includes:
- Keyword research
- Topic targeting
- Title tag optimization
- Unique meta descriptions
- User engagement
- Content marketing
The majority of on-site SEO deals with explicitly telling Google what your pages are about. This removes the guesswork so they don't have to waste time figuring out a page's topic.
You need search engines to quickly understand your content so they can see that it's a valuable resource. The best way to do that is to tell them about it.
Off-site SEO has to do with optimizing your ranking signals that come from other websites.
Most of these strategies boil down to cultivating your expertise, authority, and trust, or E-A-T for short. Think of it as your reputation or what other people think of you.
- Do people link to you?
- Are they talking about you?
- What are they saying?
- Where are they saying it?
The primary way to improve these ranking signals is to earn high-quality backlinks from relevant and reputable websites. In a nutshell, consider these to be little votes of confidence from other websites. We'll cover this in more detail in the link building section.
This type of SEO includes:
- Link building
- Reputation management
- Public relations
- Local citations
- Company reviews
While your inbound links will make up a sizable chunk of your off-site trust signals, you can't neglect everything else. Off-site SEO is all about establishing authority and trust.
Negative signals can be just as impactful as positive ones.
For instance, having horrible customer reviews is a negative trust signal. At the very least, it will have an impact on your organic click-through-rates (CTRs). It could also hurt your ability to rank.
Technical SEO is technically part of on-site SEO. However, it touches on such a large number of related ranking signals that it's become its own SEO category.
Technical SEO has three main pillars. Your site's ability to be indexed, Google's ability to quickly interpret your pages, and how easy it is for users to interact with your pages.
This type of SEO includes:
- Optimizing site load times
- Internal site architecture
- Page URL structure
- Sitemap index rate
- Site crawlability
- Proper use of redirects
- Schema markup
- Site security
This is typically what most businesses struggle with regardless of their size. Many don't even bother trying to optimize these signals. They're either too limited by the capabilities of their staff or by their infrastructure. Instead, they move on to more completable projects.
Important ranking signals
Google's search algorithm is completely dependent on ranking signals. Without this input data, it would be impossible to quickly sort through billions of sites for billions of different searches and return authoritative search results with any level of accuracy.
We don't know what these ranking signals are, but we've been able to make some inferences and draw some accurate conclusions over the years. It's safe to say that we know the overall categories for 3 of the main ranking signals with a high degree of confidence.
Understanding and optimizing your pages for these signals can have a major impact on your organic search visibility.
You're going to need backlinks to get onto Page One of Google. There's just no avoiding it.
Sure, it's possible to rank without backlinks so you could ignore link building. You can publish your content and hope for the best. You might even get some traffic.
However, you're more likely to end up like the 90% of pages on the Internet that get absolutely no search traffic from Google.
Why don't they get any traffic? No backlinks.
AHRef's study found that 90% of the 1 billion pages in their index got 0 traffic from Google. The biggest shared trait between them was that they also had 0 backlinks.
Yes, correlation isn't causation, but when we know that links act like votes of confidence, we can't ignore the relationship.
Besides, if no one's willing to vouch for your site, why should Google rank it?
Look, earning links isn't easy. Most companies avoid link building because of how difficult and time-intensive it is. This is also why most companies don't get any organic traffic.
Whether you end up doing link building or you hire someone, remember to focus on quality over quantity.
A few high-quality backlinks from relevant and authoritative websites carry far more weight than a ton of spammy links. Taking shortcuts will give your site an unnatural link profile and can put you at risk of being penalized by Google.
Your content helps Google understand what your site is about. The quality of your content also helps them understand whether you're adding to the conversation or just being part of it.
When we talk about content as a ranking signal at the macro level, we're mainly looking at a handful of very specific data points.
There are a ton of micro metrics that aren't relevant at this level. Things like word count, h tag usage, internal link positioning, and so on are irrelevant at this level. Just put them aside for right now.
There are a few questions that you need to answer about your content.
- Is it informative?
- Is it relevant?
- Is it valuable?
- Is it recent?
- Is it accurate?
This is what Google is trying to gauge when they look at your content.
Too many people get bogged down in the micro metrics and forget that their content needs to provide value.
Great content can rank even with poor optimization. However, no amount of optimization can help bad content rank.
Google processes billions of search queries every day and that number is steadily growing. Nearly 15% of these searches are completely new and have never been seen before. This makes it incredibly difficult to match them with relevant pages that satisfy their query.
Before RankBrain, Google's search algorithm would have to guess on which page to show.
Sometimes it guessed right, and sometimes it guessed wrong.
Google started investing in machine learning to help its algorithm teach itself how to handle these never-before-seen search queries so it wouldn't have to guess anymore.
In a nutshell, machine learning works by feeding the algorithm data. From there, the system will run experiments and gauge the results based on a variety of metrics. It then iterates on each test to improve the quality of those results.
It does this by using vectors to create semantic relationships between words and topics. What this does is provide context for search queries so it can understand what they mean. This puts less focus on individual keywords and more on the overall topic.
This is a win/win situation for both Google and websites. Google can quickly understand what pages are about and pages can rank for a wide variety of keywords.
You also don't have to worry about perfect keyword targeting either. You can spend more time on creating great content instead of checking all the proverbial SEO boxes.
RankBrain does all of this programmatically now. There is little to no manual action involved anymore. These tests run in the background and update Google's algorithm in near real-time.
One thing to keep in mind with RankBrain is that you can't specifically optimize for it. It's an interpretive search model.
It tries to understand the intent of your search and then applies ranking signals to results that are appropriate for the query. These signals can include freshness, engagement, location, etc.
All you can do is focus on creating high-quality content and structuring it in a way that matches the intent of the queries you care most about.
Google's ranking factors
We need to clear up a misconception real quick.
A lot of people in and adjacent to this industry talk about Google's ranking factors. They make pretty firm statements about what is and is not a ranking factor.
Here's the deal.
No one knows what Google's ranking factors are. The only people that do work at Google and they aren't telling.
However, they have confirmed that 200+ factors are in use. But their weights are always in flux and many more have undoubtedly been added since their confirmation.
I wouldn't be surprised if that number has tripled or quadrupled since it was publicized in 2006, almost 15 years ago.
The SEO landscape is a completely different place now.
On top of that, Matt Cutts confirmed in 2010 that there might be 50 variations of each factor. That puts the ranking factor count anywhere from 200 to over 10,000!
While these "Google ranking factor" blogs do a great job of bringing in traffic, they aren't accurately conveying the information. And that's a problem because people just like you are using what you learn to build your SEO strategies.
Having inaccurate information can lead you to make the wrong decision and hurt your website instead of helping it.
As SEO's, all we can do is make educated guesses about what Google's latest search algorithm does and doesn't like. We don't know with absolute certainty. (And anyone claiming to is peddling snake oil.)
We collect information from our tests and then corroborate that data with other SEOs around the world. We're essentially playing one big game of connect-the-dots to make a picture out of the chaos.
Instead of worrying about whether or not you have all the boxes checked, stick to the fundamental SEO principles.
- Create high-quality content that provides value to your customers.
- Make it easy for Google to crawl and index your site.
- Make sure that your site is user friendly and works on all devices.
That's far more impactful than whether or not your domain has a keyword in it or how many iterations of a keyword there are on a page.
Remember this the next time you see an article or a freelancer talking about definitive ranking factors.
Important algorithm updates
Google's search algorithm is constantly evolving. Every time there's a major update, a new layer is added to it to make it more sophisticated and complex. Learning about how these layers work will give you the insight you need to optimize your pages.
- Panda (2011): Panda's main goal was culling webspam. This update targeted websites with thin/duplicate/low-quality content. It pushed these low-quality websites that used spammy tactics out of the search results so websites with outstanding content could shine.
- Penguin (2012): Penguin focused on websites with unnatural backlink profiles and keyword stuffing. It primarily targeted manipulative link building tactics like link schemes, sitewide backlinks, and buying backlinks.
- Top Heavy (2012): One ad can provide value. Too many ads can cause people to leave your site. Google took action and started penalizing websites that had more ads than actual content above the fold.
- Pigeon (2013): Pigeon helped improve the local search results by applying the ranking signals from their primary search algorithm to their local algorithm. This also helped strengthen the relationship between the searcher and businesses near them to improve the relevance of those search results.
- Payday (2013): This update focused on industries that were likely to abuse spammy marketing tactics. Payday loans, casinos, and pharmaceuticals are just a few of the targeted verticals. Websites that tried to brute force their way to the top of the search results were penalized for these tactics.
- Mobile Friendly (2015): Google told companies to make their websites mobile-friendly for years. They finally made it an official ranking signal with the Mobile-Friendly update. This was a cultural shift that forced websites to conform or see less visibility in the mobile search results.
- Medic (2018): Medic saw the addition of both E-A-T and YMYL into Google's search algorithm. This update focused on improving their ability to judge the authority of content that might affect someone's health or wealth. The health, fitness, and medical industries were most affected by these changes.