In this article, we will cover the basics of SEO for beginners like:
- What SEO is and how it works
- Technical SEO
- Keyword research
- On-page SEO
- Link building
- Measuring the success of your SEO strategy
Let’s get right into it by defining what SEO is and how it works to help your site achieve its digital marketing goals.
Chapter 1: SEO & How It Works
Search engine optimization refers to the practices, techniques, and processes of boosting a website’s visitor traffic so that the site appears higher up on the search engine results pages where users can find it.
To have a holistic SEO strategy that works, you need to focus on two main categories of optimization: on-page SEO and off-page SEO. Both of these categories incorporate multiple tactics underneath them.
For example, on-page SEO should include keyword research, technical SEO, and content optimization tactics. Off-page SEO encompasses link building, guest blogging, social media marketing, and influencer marketing (to name a few).
We will get into both on-page SEO and off-page SEO tactics in the coming chapters. For now, it’s essential to know that SEO works by building and optimizing the kind of web content that signals to Google that your website is authoritative trustworthy and that it is the kind of content that effectively addresses searchers’ queries.
Important note: There are dozens of search engines available to users, but for this guide’s purposes, we will be referring to the most popular search engine, Google.
Want to learn more about the foundations of SEO? Check out our other resources on the topic:
Chapter 2: Technical SEO
As the name implies, technical SEO deals with website and webpage technical infrastructure. Technical SEO is all the work that happens behind the scenes of your site, but it’s vital to the user experience (which, in turn, influences how Google views your site).
So, even if a user won’t see your perfect code, they will appreciate that your site runs smoothly and that they can quickly find what they are looking for.
This technical SEO work also influences the way Google can crawl (i.e., browse) your website and correctly index and render your content so that users can find and interact with your site.
While there is no getting around focusing on these technical aspects of SEO, it doesn’t need to be as sweat-inducing as it seems on the surface. Here is an essential checklist of some considerations you’ll want to make to have a well-rounded approach to your technical SEO:
- Site structure: Is it easy to navigate?
- Mobile user experience
- SSL (Secure Sockets Layer): Does your site have secure links?
- Accessibility: Do you offer dynamic content for visual or hearing disabilities users?
- Page speed: Does time-consuming code bog down your site?
- Internal linking: Are your links between your web pages working?
- Migrations: When you make significant changes to your website, can you successfully transfer the authority, ranking, and indexing signals?
- Status codes: Do you have links that turn up a 404 or other error when users click on them?
- Crawling/ indexing/rendering: Can Google successfully browse/crawl your website and index and render it accordingly?
Are you still looking for more information on technical SEO? We have you covered. Check out our other resources on all things tech SEO:
Chapter 3: Keyword Research
Keyword research is the art of optimizing written content to target specific keywords or phrases that users are entering into search engines when they make a search query. Keyword research requires access to a database of keywords and some imagination.
For example, let’s say you work in marketing for a dog food company. You need to create a blog for the company website. To get that blog content that you work so hard on to rank on Google (and other search engines), you’ll need to develop keywords that relate to your product and what prospective customers/stakeholders might be Googling when they’re making search queries.
That’s a challenging goal to achieve if you can’t see what people are searching for in the dog food industry on Google. However, you can do just that if you have access to a tool like Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool.
All you need to do is enter the words “dog food” into the search bar and watch as the tool populates all kinds of related keywords to “dog food” people are searching for that you can craft content around.
The main goal with keywords is to select the right combination of high monthly search volume and low keyword difficulty scores. This score signals how saturated that keyword is in search and how much competition you’ll face if you target it.
Some marketers also choose to target keywords with slightly lower monthly search volume, especially if they are niche or hyper-focused to their target audience and have a low difficulty rating.
It’s important to note that keyword research isn’t just throwing proverbial darts at a wall and hoping they stick. You’ll want to develop a detailed content creation strategy that focuses on a wide range of related topics to cover the most search ground possible.
Clustering keywords into topic clusters can help you maintain a broader focus on industry or business subjects important to your user. This more general focus also allows you to create main “pillar pages” to build additional content around your website.
Using the dog food company as an example, maybe during your keyword research, you discover many searches made around the keyword “dry dog food.” Maybe your company also just so happens to be experts in the dry dog food arena.
Knowing this, you could create a pillar page, “Dry Dog Food,” that broadly covers the topic of dry dog food and link to it on your website’s main navigation bar. You could then write several keyword-targeted blogs on matters like “Top 10 Dry Dog Food Nutrients Your Dog Needs” or “How to Start Your Puppy on Dry Dog Food” that you then link to on your “Dry Dog Food” pillar page.
This signals to Google and your site visitors that you are the go-to experts on dry dog food. Topic clusters and pillar pages are great organizational tools for almost any keyword research strategy.
Keyword research takes practice, trial and error, and especially patience. Keyword-targeted content doesn’t often rocket to the top of the search engine results overnight. We will talk later about how to measure the success of your SEO, but it’s good to set reasonable and realistic expectations for your keyword research strategy from the start.
If you want to get the full scoop on how to begin a keyword research strategy, check out our other resources on the topic:
Chapter 4: On-Page SEO
On-page SEO refers to the practice of optimizing your owned web content to satisfy Google’s algorithm. Still, more importantly, it’s also the practice of optimizing your owned content for your users.
You might sometimes see “on-page SEO” and “keyword targeting” or “keyword research” used interchangeably. However, there are more elements to on-page optimization than just getting the keywords right.
A keyword-targeted page that is disorganized and meandering will not help users solve their search queries, and it will make it difficult for Google’s bots to crawl and index your hard work.
Whereas a keyword-targeted blog post or landing page that has clear headers (also called H2s or H3s), title tags, and meta descriptions will not only satisfy Google, it will also help your user navigate your site with ease, which will likely keep them from bouncing from your site to a competitor’s site.
What does it mean to have clear headers? It means that you organize your content into sub-sections that flow well and tell a compelling story that users want to read.
Using the dog food example above, let’s take a look at what a blog draft might look like after you’ve identified your keywords and have begun building content that emphasizes secondary keywords around your head term “dry dog food.”
During your research, you also found that people were searching for things like “best dry dog food” or “can my dog have dry dog food?” so you would want to capitalize on those keyword opportunities and use them as H2 headers. See the draft below:
In addition to headers that target keywords and flow well, on-page optimization can also include things such as:
- Ensure you have alt text for your images and add infographics or other dynamic elements to improve accessibility.
- Ensuring that your above-the-fold content is helpful and optimized for mobile users
- Checking that your meta descriptions are no more than 160 characters
- Your title tags are clear and concise.
To get a better understanding of on-page SEO elements, check out these articles:
Chapter 5: Link Building
Link building is the act of securing links that point back to your site on other websites. If keyword research is the most creative element of SEO, link building is the most social element.
When another authoritative and trusted website links to your content, Google takes this as a signal that your content is both trustworthy and authoritative. It also helps build brand recognition when third parties acknowledge your website. There are a few types of backlinks you’ll need to be aware of:
- Follow backlinks: These are the backlinks you are striving for. These backlinks do count in your favor and improve page rank, so long as they are from trustworthy and genuine (aka not spam) sites in your industry.
- No-follow backlinks: These backlinks do not count in your favor and do not improve your page rank. If you’re trying to build trust and authority, you’ll want to avoid these types of backlinks and correct the ones you do find (we will touch on how to do this in a minute).
- Toxic backlinks: These backlinks originate from sites that do not have good domain authority scores. Even if these backlinks are follow backlinks, they won’t work in your favor and could potentially harm your rankings (Google can penalize your site if it has a bad backlinks profile).
The main way marketers secure backlink placements is by networking with publishers and influencers in their industry. Some publishers might choose to link to your site organically independently, but having just a few publishers do this is not typically enough to build a solid backlink profile.
Some people opt to maintain these publisher relationships and all the communication threads they require on their own, but that’s a lot of work. You need to be highly organized to avoid losing valuable relationships with publishers.
Our Link building tool can help you identify backlink opportunities and manage the outreach necessary to secure the placement. This makes it easy to stay organized and on top of any messages from publishers, you may receive.
In addition, our Backlink Audit tool helps you identify any toxic backlinks and any no-follow backlinks that point to your site. This allows you to request that these publishers remove or update the backlink to maintain or boost your page ranking.
While it may be tempting to secure backlinks from any publisher willing to link to your site, you want to ensure that the publishers you communicate with are in your industry. If you’re selling dog food but have a car dealership linking to your site with no discernable reason, that will not signal to customers or Google that your website is trustworthy.
If you’re ready to leap backlink building, be sure to check out these articles first:
Chapter 6: Measuring SEO Success
Once you’ve invested your time and resources into a comprehensive SEO strategy, you will want to track the performance of your campaigns. So, how do you go about measuring SEO success?
Well, that can be a highly individualized benchmark (or benchmarks) to set. Some businesses opt to consider SEO a success once someone has signed up for an email marketing program through their website, or maybe you’re looking for a specific conversion rate.
But there are also ways to measure how much-qualified traffic your site is receiving, how users behave on your website, how quickly your page speed loads, and more. Let’s break these metrics down even further and talk about gathering the data.
The first thing to know is that you’ll need access to your Google Analytics account to see how many users are coming to your site and to see what they’re doing once they get there. You can also link your Google Analytics to your Semrush account to gain invaluable insights into organic traffic, position tracking, and more.
Here are some examples of how you can measure success and find the data you need:
- Organic (non-paid) traffic: Our Organic Traffic Insights tool connects to your Google Analytics account and Google Search Console to display how much traffic you’ve gained or lost month-over-month, year-over-year. You can see data like click-through rate, sessions, and volume with organic keywords. You can also uncover “not-provided” keywords from Google Analytics and cross-reference that data to get the most accurate overall look at your website’s organic search performance.
- Keyword ranking: You can use the Position Tracking tool to keep tabs on high-value keywords you’ve selected to target in your content. You’ll be able to see when you move up or down in the SERPs.
- Click-through-rate, page speed, and bounce rate: If users stay on your site and navigate to multiple pages in one session, that’s typically an excellent sign that your content speaks to them. If you find that users click away quickly or leave your site altogether, that can indicate you need to target your content better, or your page speed is lagging. You can use the Site Audit tool to get these metrics.
For more information on SEO key performance indicators (KPIs), check out our article, 12 Important SEO KPIs You Should Track.
Starting an SEO strategy from the ground up can feel a little like building an airplane, but you don’t have to make the airplane while trying to fly it solo. There are hundreds of free resources that can help you get off the ground with a solid and dependable airplane.