You probably know that it stands for search engine optimization, but what do you need to optimize?
Is it the design? Or is it the writing? Or maybe it’s the links.
Yes, yes, and yes — it’s all of that and more.
But let’s start this SEO guide at the beginning.
Definition: According to Wikipedia, SEO is “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s unpaid results.”
Alright, let’s translate that to English. Here’s my go at it:
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your online content so that a search engine likes to show it as a top result for searches of a certain keyword.
Let me break that down even further:
When it comes to SEO, there’s you, the search engine, and the searcher. If you have an article about how to make vegan lasagna, you want the search engine (which, in 90% of all cases, is Google) to show it as a top result to anyone who searches for the phrase “vegan lasagna.”
SEO is the magic you have to work on your article in order to make Google very likely to include your post as one of the top results whenever someone searches for that keyword.
We’re going to dig deep into SEO, but feel free to jump to any section that interests you:
It’s the same with search engine optimization. Some people are in it to make a few grand really quickly while others are in it for the long haul.
If you want to work SEO like a get-rich-quick scheme, you’ll probably end up doing black hat SEO.
This type of SEO focuses on optimizing your content only for the search engine, not considering humans at all. Since there are lots of ways to bend and break the rules to get your sites to rank high, these are a prime way for black hat SEOs to make a few thousand dollars fast.
Ultimately, this approach results in spammy, crappy pages that often get banned very fast. It will often lead to severe punishment for the marketer, ruining their chance of building something sustainable in the future.
You might make a few grand this way, but you’ll continuously have to be on the lookout for search engine updates and come up with new ways to dodge the rules.
White hat SEO, on the other hand, 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 to them by playing according to the search engine’s rules.
All marketing tactics need to be scalable at the end of the day if they’re going to generate any ROI.
But here’s the problem with that notion.
Almost every ‘scalable link building tactic’ is borderline black hat depending on how you do it.
Ross shows examples of this time and time again where even massive brands you visit daily, like The New York Times, have built links. You could technically consider that this goes against Google’s rules.
Now, it might be easy to build links in some industries, like technology or nutrition. There are thousands of blogs online that talk about this stuff daily.
He predicts that ‘engagement hacks’ like this one will become a new gray hat tactic.
Another example could include driving up your Facebook engagement to help give your organic reach a little boost.
I’m not saying gray hat is good or bad. That’s for you to decide.
But I am shining a light on something you rarely hear people discuss in public:
SEO is a zero-sum game.
Many of your competitors will do whatever it takes to reach the top. That displaces you, pushing you further down into obscurity.
So you need to decide which path you’re going to take and what degree of risk you’re comfortable accepting.
Cleaning inside your house and outside: on-page SEO vs. off-page SEO
There are two broad categories of SEO: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
On-page SEO concerns all of Google’s ranking factors that they determine by directly looking at the page you try to optimize, such as your headlines, content, and page structure.
Off-page SEO refers to all variables Google takes a look at, and they aren’t exclusively in your own hands. They depend on other sources, such as social networks, other blogs in your industry, and the personal history of the searcher.
They’re different, but you need to get both right in order to do well with SEO.
To give you a better idea of what that means, here’s an example:
Let’s say you have a house with a garden in the front yard and a little pathway that leads through your front yard to your house.
Imagine these two scenarios:
Scenario #1: Your house is super clean on the inside, but your front yard is a mess.
What happens in this scenario? Well, even if you have the cleanest Mary Poppins-style house on the inside, if your garden looks like the forest from Sleeping Beauty, no one will come into your house in the first place.
It’s the same if you haven’t optimized your page around on-page SEO. It may have great content and look stunning, but it’s likely that no one will give you credit for it or point to your page.
No one will ever see your beautiful masterpiece because you won’t get any traffic.
What about the other way around?
Scenario #2: You have neatly trimmed your lawn, but the inside of your house is a mess.
Turn things around, and they look similar: Having a nice lawn will attract plenty of people to come visit your house, but if your living room reminds your guests of a war zone, they’ll leave quicker than you can pronounce SEO.
When a visitor leaves your site after viewing only one page, Google considers that a bounce. The higher your bounce rate (number of visitors who leave your site instantly), the worse your page will rank on Google.
That’s why you need to do both on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
You can do several things on your page to get the former right and then even more things outside of that (off the page if you will) to ace the latter.
We’ll take a look at on-page SEO first.
There are three big categories of on-page SEO that you’ll need to take a look at. The first and most important is content.
Because a Google search engine customer is happy when he finds the result that serves his needs in the best way.
When you Google “quick and easy homemade mac and cheese,” Google will put 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 give you the best experience possible by directing you to the greatest content it can find.
This means that 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 will always come from big effort.
Just like the best marketing in the world won’t help you sell a bad product, super advanced SEO will be useless if you’re content just plain sucks.
Here are the factors that make up great content in Google’s eyes:
Quality – While the times where just delivering the best-quality content would make you stand out from the crowd are long gone, it is still the starting point for any successful SEO effort (and any online business, really).
But coming up with great content is not easy. After all, it means that you have to become a teacher — and a good one at that.
Use of keywords – Google has gotten smarter over the years. While you should, of course, use your keyword throughout your content, jamming your keyword into your text as much as possible will hurt your rankings rather than improve them.
Today, the use of keywords is much more about semantics. Google has gotten so good at interpreting the meaning of searchers’ keywords that it’s creepy.
It not only looks at your keyword but also synonyms of it to understand what you mean when you type in something like “five guys nyc.”
Google will know that you’re probably not looking for five random males, but rather, it guesses that you’re looking for the fast-food chain “Five Guys, Burgers & Fries” by looking at similar searches that may include the keywords “burgers” and “fries.”
As long as you make sure your keyword is present in strategically-important places (like headlines, URL, and meta description), there is no need to mention it tons of times in your text.
Direct answers – Finally, Google will sometimes provide searchers with direct answers right on the SERP. If you write your content clearly enough for Google to recognize it as an answer to a particular question, it will show up directly beneath the search bar.
Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s spam team and often public voice for the latest in SEO and algorithm changes, announced last year that people who were cutting the jargon would be right on track.
That’s why detailed guides and long how-to’s have become more and more popular. So make sure you clear up your writing. Fancy buzzwords and complex sentence constructions will neither make you sound smart nor help your SEO game.
They assume that just because the volume will be much lower for these, the competition will be, too.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Check out the “content marketing agency” search query to see why.
The volume is way less at only around 100 visits. It seems like the perfect long-tail keyword.
Except, there’s just one problem. Check out this competition.
All of these sites have been around for years.
They all have hundreds (if not thousands or tens of thousands) of links.
The competition for this query is just as competitive as the first popular one.
So this one is worse than the first one. If you were to somehow rank at the top of this one, you’d barely get any traffic!
The demand for this query is just too low given the high competition level.
So once again, it doesn’t make sense.
What do you do next?
How can you possibly find keywords that are:
Relevant to your business
Not too competitive
But still provide enough traffic to be worth the effort?
That’s the golden question.
The answer is that you have to think outside the box. Here’s how.
Keyword research tip #1: Focus on search intent
Most people focus on keywords.
Counterintuitively, that’s now what you want to do.
Instead of looking at what people are typing in, you should be trying to identify what they’re searching for.
This is what “search intent” refers to.
And it’s the difference between getting a tiny bit of traffic and driving real revenue.
Let’s kick things off with a basic scenario to highlight the difference.
You own a job site.
You make money by getting companies to run job post listings on your site.
That means that you need to get job pages ranking well so that people come to your site instead of Indeed or somewhere else.
The more people who find jobs through you, the more you’ll get paid.
But watch what happens with a keyword like “engineering jobs.”
The results are all over the place!
Some refer to mechanical engineers while others focus on software or entry-level positions.
The intent behind each search is completely different.
That’s what you need to pinpoint.
What exactly is this user looking for? Which type of engineering job are they interested in?
Fortunately, this problem highlights how we can eventually solve it by coming up with good keywords that aren’t too competitive.
Indeed.com might be a tough competitor right now. So you need to find different alternatives based on search intent.
First, look at Google’s own suggested searches for that query.
These are other common searches that people perform.
Already, you have a few potentials.
“Mechanical,” “civil,” and “industrial” might be highly competitive. But what about “environmental” or “audio”?
Scroll down to the very bottom of the SERP to get even more suggestions from Google.
The “aerospace” one is especially interesting.
Let’s look at one last example to see the role search intent plays in keyword selection before moving onto another tool.
But let’s start this one with a question:
What is someone looking for when they type “best marketing automation tool” into Google?
Yes, they’re looking for a marketing automation tool. Except, they aren’t ready to commit to one just yet.
Instead, what they’re doing is looking for a way to evaluate alternatives. They’re looking for a side-by-side comparison so they can compare apples to apples.
Now, watch what happens when you run that search query into Google.
I highlighted the first paid result and organic ranking because they’re going after search intent.
They’re trying to understand what people are looking for and not just what they’re typing in. Then, they’re giving it to them.
The other paid results in the middle are just trying to sell you a tool despite the fact that people searching here want to look at multiple options.
Those companies are looking at a list of keywords without considering the underlying motivation of each user.
It’s like tunnel vision.
You pull up a list of keywords in some tool, rank by search volume, and run down the list.
Instead, you need to expand your options like you saw a second ago with Google’s own suggestions.
AnswerThePublic is another of my favorite tools to do this because it uses actual search queries to build a list.
Search for “best marketing automation tools,” and it will break the list down even further.
One of my favorite graphs will even help you segment exactly who’s searching for this.
For example, this graph shows that the following people are searching for “best marketing automation tools”:
Each of these is a completely different audience.
Each might have their own budgets.
A venture-backed startup is willing to pay more than a small business, for instance.
Each also has their own needs.
WordPress users will want a simple plugin to run campaigns directly from inside the application, whereas a B2B professional might be platform agnostic.
Or, they might want to run their website through the automation tool so that there’s less to manage.
See the implications of that?
It changes which keywords you target.
The pages you build or the blog posts you create will address subsets of each one to compete for the best keywords in each space.
But it even impacts the campaigns you’re eventually going to run.
If you’re trying to get press mentions and you’re going after WordPress users, that means you’re going to target WordPress-specific sites and bloggers.
You’re going to pitch or advertise on WPBeginner instead of Inc.com even though their readership is less.
Your odds of success will be higher due to less competition. And the site’s audience will be far more interested in what you have to sell.
That means that you’ll not just get better links or search rankings, but also a lot more revenue.
Once you’ve made sure your content is evergreen, the next big chunk you have to take care of is HTML.
You don’t have to be a professional coder or get a degree in programming by any means. But, running an online business without knowing the basics of HTML would be the same as driving without knowing what the colors of traffic lights mean.
Thankfully, with places like Codecademy or Khan Academy, there are more than enough possibilities to learn everything about HTML that you need in the blink of an eye and for free.
Meta description – Meta descriptions are what show up as an excerpt when Google displays your page as a result to searchers. It’s easy to spot who’s done their SEO homework and who hasn’t by the meta description.
If you optimize a meta description result, Google will never cut it off and end with “…” or make it seem like it ends mid-sentence. Optimized meta descriptions also often mention the content’s keyword up-front.
I use it across a lot of my sites because it’s simply the best SEO plugin on the market.
It’s the most popular, they update it almost weekly, and it includes a lot of advanced time-saving features.
It will not only help you quickly edit your titles and metadata, but it will also:
Help you set metadata for each social network so that Facebook, Twitter, etc. will properly format your rich data, such as the images.
Dynamically create and update your XML sitemap as your site evolves.
Integrate with your Google Search Console out of the box so that you can quickly find and fix the biggest problem areas on your site.
And lots more!
For example, instead of having to customize each page or post manually, you can create default settings for your titles and metadata.
You can even add extra features. Two of my favorites are the Readability and Keyword analysis tools that help give simple benchmarks to people you’re working with or outsourcing to.
That way, there are clear indicators for them to hit before ever publishing directly to your site.
Schema – Schema is the result of a collaboration of several search engines. It’s basically just a subset of specific HTML tags that will improve the way the search engine result pages display your content.
How to diagnose these HTML improvements – Google’s Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) has an “HTML Improvements” report that will help you spot some of the issues that I highlighted above.
The third and last part of on-page SEO that I’ll cover is site architecture. While this part gets super-techy really quickly, there are a few simple things everyone can and should take care of to improve SEO rankings.
Easy to crawl – Remember the spiders from the introductory video? These are the programs that “crawl” from one page on your site to the next through links.
But the exact solution depends on what’s causing the original issue.
For example, removing a few lines of code from your blog theme will fix the above issue in about 30 seconds (if you know what you’re doing, of course).
If you have multiple versions of the same page, the canonical tag can help you specify which content is the original.
All you have to do is drop in a single line of code that references the original page URL like this.
Fortunately, plugins like Yoast SEO make this simple.
If you’re not on a content management system like WordPress, you’re going to have to edit the .htaccess file of your site to include 301 redirects. I’d strongly recommend educating yourself about 301 redirects and getting some professional help in this case.
Mobile-friendliness – Let’s face it: if your page isn’t mobile-friendly, you lost.
Over 54% of Facebook users access the network exclusively on their mobile devices. Considering that Facebook now has 1.65 billion monthly active users, that number represents nearly 900 million mobile-only users!