Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the marketing process of improving the visibility of a website in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) – such that the site attracts visitors searching for related topics via search engines such as Google and Bing.
Good SEO is critical for improving the quality and quantity of visitors to a website and can make a significant difference to the bottom line of any business.
There are many aspects of SEO – from the simple to the complex – and involve the content of the site, the structuring of that content, the structure and programming of the site itself as well as how the site relates to the rest of the internet – specifically in how other sites link to the site in question.
How do search engines search?
Before we get too involved, it’s worth having an overview of how search engines do their thing.
Search & Index
The first part is where the search engine, via programs called “web crawlers”, seeks out content on the internet (through submitted sitemaps / and links from other websites) and then indexes that content.
Whilst this might sound like a simple process, search engines have got a lot more sophisticated over the years in how they interpret a web page that has been indexed. Search engines are now able to define the “context” of content they index (in relation to the other content on the page, and the site overall), the relative importance of the content they index (how many times, for example, a particular word is mentioned and where it’s mentioned (in titles, at the beginning of the page, etc.)) as well as many other things.
Critically, search engines are very adept at identifying content that tries to “game” the system – so-called “Black Hat SEO”.
Note: not all content is indexable by search engines. For example, images unless suitably named, titled, and annotated are hard for search engines to index, likewise PDFs that haven’t been properly formatted.
The second part is how the search engine decides to rank results from this index for a given search word or phrase.
Google, for example, uses a multitude of algorithms to rank its search results based on a vast array of variables including the number of incoming links a page has, the quality of those links, how old the page is, when it was last updated, the location of the searcher and up to 250 other variables.
The first challenge in SEO is to get your content indexed correctly, the second, arguably harder part, is getting it to rank highly.
An increasing aspect of search engine results that are often overlooked when looking at SEO is the increasing personalisation of search results for specific users.
Search engines do their utmost to provide the most appropriate search results for their users – as such, they use the information they already have about the user making the search query to tailor their search results.
A good example of this is when a user submits a search query that could have a geographical aspect to it, if the search engine knows where the user is, the search engine will return geographically relevant results.
Other factors which a search engine will use include what the user has searched for and clicked before - so if you have searched for your business online and clicked on it – the search engine will remember and will prioritise that link for you in future searches.
SEO – writing for an audience
In the olden days, search engines used non-visible content to index sites such as meta tags – allowing website owners to define how their website should be indexed. Long story short, this was abused.
Instead, search engines index a site according to the content on the site that a visitor to that site would see.
Therefore, when creating content, website owners need to be cognizant of at least two audiences:
Every day humans who can understand the intricacies of language and its multiple meanings – for example, you can quite easily talk about a particular subject without explicitly mentioning that subject
- Search engines:
Automated algorithms that whilst very good, do not comprehend the content in the same way that humans do.
Therefore, website content needs to be structured in a way to be understandable by both these audiences, i.e., using specific words and phrases that a search engine can comprehend whilst still making the content appropriate for more complex humans.
Hot Lemon'S Basic SEO Guide
On to our “basic” guide.
There are two major aspects to SEO – “on page” and “off page”.
- On-page is, as the name suggests, is related to the content, structure, and operation of the page itself. This is what primarily allows search engines to “index” a site.
- Off-page on the other hand is related to external factors – like the number and quality of links pointing to a specific web page. This primarily allows a search engine to “rank” that page.
For this guide, we will be focusing mostly on “on-page” SEO as that is the most controllable and actionable.
Part 1: The Technical Bit
Whilst most SEO activities are focused on content, using keywords and structuring content, there are some technical aspects to it as well.
Here we will focus on three – responsiveness, speed, and security.
- Responsiveness – mobile friendly:
- As more and more users access the web from mobile devices – search engines have responded by ranking “mobile-friendly” content higher than equivalent non-mobile friendly content – Google’s “mobile first” strategy.
- Speed – it’s a virtue:
- Likewise, Google has indicated that page speed – the speed at which a website loads and displays content – which makes the web more usable for all – is also a factor in ranking websites.All things being equal a site that loads faster will rank higher.
- Security – it’s important:
- The security of a particular site has been a factor in Google's ranking algorithm since 2014, and indications are that it’s becoming a stronger ranking factor as time goes by.
Here we are talking about HTTPS which can confirm a site's identity through authentication and then protect any connection through encryption (the little green padlock in the URL bar). For any form of e-commerce activity - having a secure website is a must.
There's a whole host of other technical factors which search engines take into account when ranking a site, but the above generally are deemed to be the most pertinent.
Part 2: Research & Definition
Before you've even considered anything else - research and define your business, the market it operates in, and the competition within that market. For example:
- How would you describe your services and products?
- How would potential customers describe your products and services (not necessarily the same as the above)?
- How competitive is your market?
- How do your competitors describe their products and services?
- What "keywords" (search engine queries) would you use to find your business or your competitor's business?
- What "keywords" would you like your business to be found by?
This is important as it allows you to generate words and phrases to target.
The next step is to develop a list of keywords for your website. These are the search terms you want to be found on.
- Step 1 - Topic list of each product or service
for each service or product that your business offers, define a relatively generic keyword (search term you would like to be found on), for example for a garage this could be:
- "Accident repair" etc.
- Step 2 - Generate keywords for each topic
for each of the topics above generate a list of keywords that you think potential customers will use to find content related to that particular topic – the idea here is to come up with a list that can then be shortened later.
In this list, we want a mix of "head terms" (more generic terms) and "long-tail" keywords (longer phrases - usually more specific).
To make this easier - use Google&'s "related searches" (usually at the bottom of search results) and also review what your competitors are targeting.
For example, if we took "Servicing" from above we could come up with:
- "main dealer servicing"
- "main dealer service discount"
- "main dealer service warranty"
- "cheap servicing"
- "what is covered by a service"
- "is a service the same as an MOT" etc.
- Step 3 - Review and quantify
Use a tool like Google's Keyword Planner to narrow down your list of search terms (as identified above). Specifically, we don't want to search terms with too many queries (too competitive) or too few (not worth the effort).
Following this simple process should generate a comprehensive list of keywords to use in the next stages. Note though – search patterns change on a regular basis – so it is important that these keywords are reviewed on a regular basis (quarterly or half-yearly for example).
The key here is not to be overly ambitious. The more popular search terms will undoubtedly be the most competitive and focusing on these alone will put you in head-to-head competition with other sites (if other qualifiers like location and the like are not taken into consideration).
Part 3 – develop a structure
We generally prefer and recommend a more granular site structure for our clients. Specifically, each topic or subject area has its own dedicated page of content. So, for example, a business with five distinct services would have at least five pages of content describing each of those services - more if the service or topic area is quite complex.
Ideally, these pages will focus on a specific keywords/phrases that are related to the service offered – as researched. This means that each page has a distinct focus (keyword focus) which will allow for more accurate indexing (and potential linking to).
Whilst there is a trend (usually by the creative industries) to have single-page websites (everything fitted on one page, sectioned by appropriate HTML (which makes sites much more responsive on a mobile device)) we wouldn’t recommend it for the majority of our clients unless they have only one area of specific focus which they want to gain search engine visibility for.
Further, develop a structure for your website that uses your identified keywords (in terms of naming pages/categories/tags and the like) rather than using generic terms.
Part 4 – hidden but helpful content
For each structured web page, there can be a number of “hidden” fields which aren’t necessarily visible to the visitor of the page. These “meta-tags” were created in the good ole days to help simple search engines index web pages – for example, “meta-keywords”.
These were so abused in the early days that most search engines ignore them completely or treat them with the digital equivalent of a pinch of salt.
The only meta-tags worth the effort nowadays are “meta-title” (which is actually displayed as the title of the browser window) and the “meta-description” which is often used in search engine result pages as the description of the page it’s linking to.
Search engines nowadays focus much more on visible content.
Part 5 - Content
There is an old saying in SEO – “Content is King”. That is as true now as it was in the good ole days.
Whilst opinions are varied on the precise weight that content has in achieving good search engine rankings, the overriding opinion is that it is the most important single factor.
Content is what is indexed
The content of a web page (text, images, videos, links, coding) is what search engines actually index, therefore content should be structured in a way to help search engines understand the subject and context of the content on the page. Content isn’t only text – images, videos and links are also “content” and are indexed as well, and search engines allow people to search on these separately (i.e. Google’s image search).
Content should include the keywords (as identified above – which will aid in the page being indexed correctly) and should be written with the user (reader) in mind. Search engines have become very adept at identifying content that has been written for search engines (i.e. keyword stuffing) and not for the reader of the page.
As mentioned in “website structure” each page of content should ideally be focussed on a particular topic (keywords /phrases), whilst it is tempting to discuss several topics on one page of content – this does not aid search engines in accurately identifying and indexing the focus of the page.
Use the identified keywords /phrases for the page throughout the page’s content (do not over-use as that can constitute “keyword stuffing”) and maintain focus on the particular topic
Content at the top of a page has more weight attached to it than content at the bottom of a page (search engines assume the important stuff will be mentioned first)
Non-text content (images, videos, links, etc.) needs to be properly coded, named, and titled – for example, image files should have a descriptive file name, description, and title
Use descriptive keyword focussed headings and titles throughout the page. These are given extra weight by search engines (only use one “H1” heading, and structure the rest of the page using cascading headings/titles (i.e. H1, H2, H3, H4, etc.)
Use bold text/italics to emphasise keyword phrases within the text – but do so sparingly
Never plagiarise – search engines are very adept at identifying copied or “skimmed” content and will penalise a page’s rank appropriately
Don’t have long lists of links to other sites – search engines may think you're spamming these links. And if you are linking to another site – try to ensure it is relevant to the focus of the page
Part 6 – Off-page SEO
The above handy five-step process is a good basis to get good “on-page” SEO. However, that is only part of the challenge. The other part is “off-page” – essentially gaining external validation to the site/page to give search engines confidence in the content and veracity of the page.
This is worthy of a separate article, and we will link to it from here once created.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SEO
It’s important to remember that whilst good SEO can deliver an excellent return on investment (ROI) there are alternatives – especially relevant for new market categories/entrants as well as highly competitive markets. For example, paid for advertising – both search, digital and traditional – as well as social media.
Whilst these alternatives on average do not have the same ROI as SEO, some businesses prefer the immediacy and control they offer.