SEO Guide for Beginners 2021

Beginners SEO Guide

SEO doesn’t need to be complicated and overwhelming. With a little bit of insider knowledge, you can get to grips with an SEO strategy that will transform your rankings. This (ultimate?) beginners guide breaks down everything worth knowing about the basics of SEO in a way that’s simple, clear and concise. 

Table of Contents

Section 1 - An Introduction to SEO

Before getting started, you need to understand SEO basics, what it means, and why it's so important. 

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and is the process of optimising your website to improve its rankings in search engine results. SEO can have various aims, but usually, SEO strategies are implemented to:

  • Improve rankings for specific web pages in search engine results.
  • Increase organic website visitor numbers.
  • Improve the backlink profile of a website.

When someone uses an internet search engine, they will be presented with pages of results relating to their search query. The search engine collects these results after trawling through millions of web pages online, analysing them to decide how relevant they are to the users' specific search terms. The more relevant a webpage is determined to be, the higher up the search results it will appear.

showing different types of search results

If your target audience is using a search engine to find something online (and there’s a pretty good chance that they are), you want to ensure that your website appears in the results they’re given. SEO allows you to make sure your website is considered a quality source by the search engines and ranked highly within results. The higher you are ranked, the more likely the user will click on your website.

The SEO aspects that matter

In this guide, you’ll learn about the various aspects that make up a winning SEO strategy, almost all of which will come under these three core SEO elements.

  • Content - Content will always be King, and without great content, your website will never rank well. You need to ensure that your website content is providing the answers that users are looking for. 
  • Technical - The technical aspects of SEO work almost like a cheer squad for your content. The various components come together to make sure your quality content is getting in front of the right eyes and ranking for the search terms you’re targeting. It’s your technical SEO strategy that shouts the loudest to search engines that this content is worth ranking.
  • Backlinks - The final piece of the SEO puzzle is quality backlinks. Having backlinks from high-quality websites shows search engines that your content is worth referring to and helps to improve both the ranking and authority of your website. (Don’t worry, there’s more detail on backlinks later on in the guide!)

Search engines are one of the most beneficial ways of directing traffic to your website. While social media and paid advertising can also help, if you want regular website visitors who will convert into customers, you need to make sure your SEO game is the best it can be.

One of the benefits of a great SEO strategy is that it can yield rewards long into the future once implemented. If you have a piece of cornerstone content that search engines deem to be high-quality, then they will keep ranking it, helping to increase your web traffic continually.

Search engines are intelligent, and they’re getting smarter every day, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to help them make a decision about your website and how to rank it for your targeted keywords.

SEO glossary of terms

As you learn more about SEO practices, you’re likely to regularly come across some terms and phrases. Below you’ll find a handy glossary explaining what some of the most common words mean.

  • Algorithms - This is the process of specific formulas that search engines, notably Google, use to judge and rank web pages.
  • Backlinks - Also referred to as ‘inbound links,’ are links from other websites that link to your website.
  • Black Hat SEO - These are SEO tactics that violate Google’s quality terms, and if a website is found to be using them, it will likely be penalised. Black hat SEO tactics include keyword stuffing, link farms, and comment spamming. 
  • Bounce Rate - The percentage of website visits that didn’t result in a second action. For example, if someone clicks onto your homepage but doesn’t view any other page before exiting, that would be classed as a ‘bounced session’.
  • Bots - The ‘robots’ behind the search engines crawling the internet to find relevant web pages. It’s always important to remember that bots and not actual humans power Google!
  • Caching - A saved version of your website whereby your browser saves the files a user requests when they view a website. 
  • Crawling - The action or process of search engines finding and analysing websites.
  • De-indexed - If a page or website has been de-indexed, it means it has been removed from Google’s index. 
  • HTML- This stands for HyperText Markup Language and is used to write and create web pages. 
  • Indexing - This is how the content that search engines find during crawling is stored and organised.
  • Intent - When it comes to SEO context, intent refers to the results that users are looking for when they type a term into a search engine.
  • Off-Page SEO - These are SEO activities conducted off your website, for instance, link building from other sites or guest blogging.
  • On-Page SEO - SEO activity conducted on your website, for instance, keyword optimisation and title tags.
  • Organic - In SEO context, this refers to placement in search results earned rather than purchased.
  • Ranking - The ordering of search results by relevance to the original search query.
  • Search Engine - An online program that allows you to retrieve information that matches your request. Google, Bing and Yahoo are all examples of search engines. 
  • SERP - This stands for Search Engine Results Page and is the page of website results that you see after making an initial search query.
  • Traffic - The number of visits to a website.
  • White Hat SEO - SEO techniques that comply with Google’s guidelines, including keyword research and quality content.

Section 2 - Understanding search engines

In order to fully get to grips with SEO you need to understand all about search engines, what they are and how they work.

What are search engines?

A search engine is an online information gathering tool that helps people to find the content, answers and information that they’re looking for. The most common example of a search engine is Google. Whilst there are other popular options such as Bing or Yahoo, when it comes to SEO we tend to focus on Google.

This is because Google is the search engine market leader with a whopping 92% [source] of the market share worldwide. Therefore there’s a good chance that it’s Google your target audience are using to make search queries.

Googles search engine market share

Most search engines work in the same way, so providing your website is optimised for Google, it will likely perform just as well in search rankings for other engines too.

Search engines are designed to search for websites on the internet that provide content that will match a user's search query. They sort through websites within their database and rank the results in order of relevance and quality, giving the user pages of results to choose from.

When search engines work, they follow three key steps:

Crawling - The process of search engines looking through web pages on the internet is called crawling. Search engines use crawlers or bots to follow hyperlinks to discover new pages and note any updates to pages they have already found previously.

Indexing - Once the bots have found the webpage, then they index it. Search engines aim to understand the pages and their content, helping them put the web pages into categories. A search engine index is one big store of web pages that can be presented to users once analysed.

Choosing the results - When a user makes a search query, the engine will pull out what it has deemed the best and most relevant web pages for that search term from its index. Users are then presented with a list of results to choose from.

How search engines work - Example of a crawler
Image credit: NeilPatel

You can use Google Search Console (which we’ll talk about later) to see when your website was last crawled and indexed by Google.

The different types of search

Believe it or not, there are different types of search queries that a user can input into a search engine, and there are things you can do to help you target each one. Google sorts search types into three categories:

  1. Navigational
  2. Transactional
  3. Informational

To ensure that they are providing users with the type of content they’re looking for; search engines need to understand user intent. Search engines don’t just match a search query to a web page that is well optimised for that term; they also read the meaning behind the search to ensure the results are a relevant reflection of what the user is looking for. For example, if Google understands that a user is looking to make a purchase, they will produce a results page featuring online shops instead of blogs or tutorials.

So what do the three search types mean?

Navigational - A navigational search query establishes that the user intends to visit a specific website or find a particular brand. These search queries have a particular intent behind them; the user knows exactly what result they want Google to give them and where they want to end up. Users type a specific brand name into the search bar and intend to land on that website.

Your website should always appear at the top of results for navigational searches with little work required to get it there (unless you happen to share a brand name with a famous or well-known brand, in which case you’ll face some intense competition for the top spot. If this is the case, it may be worth considering a re-brand…)

Example of a navigational search query

Transactional - A transactional search query is made when a user is looking to make a purchase. They are searching for a product or service that they want to buy. Transactional searches are valuable because users making a transactional search are often much closer to converting than other users. They know they want to make a purchase; they’re just looking for the right place to make it.

Transactional searches can vary in what they feature. For example, sometimes they will feature a specific brand name, e.g. ‘Apple Laptop’, or a more generic ‘lightweight laptop’. Both of these are examples of transactional search queries.

example of transactional search query

Informational - An informational search query is made when a user looks for information on a specific topic. They may be looking for longer-form content or a tutorial. For example, ‘how to train my dog’ is a search query where the user looks for detailed and high-quality information.

The best way to appear in results for informational search queries is to create high-quality, informative content on your chosen topics. If you want Google to rank your page for these queries, you need to ensure your website contains the information that users are looking for.

Example of informational search query

As technology advances, there’s a new type of search in town, voice search. With users able to speak into their watches, mobile phones and smart speakers, search engines are receiving more and more voice searches. 

Voice search has prompted search engines to learn how to understand colloquial and more natural phrases. It’s rare for somebody to type the way they speak, and whilst a written search query may say “weather London”, a voice search is more likely to be longer “what is the weather like in London today?”

To successfully optimise for voice search, you first need to understand your audience and how they are searching and behaving online. If you think voice search is a vital part of their online experience, then targeting more conversational keywords and optimising your website for mobile visitors are both essential steps you can take to help your rankings. Check out my guide for optimising for voice search for more information.

Google Algorithm

The Google algorithm is the formula that Google uses to crawl, rank and present web pages for any given search query. Google employs multiple algorithms to analyse web pages by considering various factors, including quality, relevance and usability.

Googles algorithm visualised

You'll find more information on some of the key ranking factors that we know for certain makeup part of Google's algorithm below, but the search engine tends to focus on themes such as:

The meaning behind the search - To ensure it's returning the most relevant results possible, Google needs to understand the purpose behind the original search query precisely. They do this by assessing three things:

  • The meaning of the words in their native language and context.
  • The search intent, what does the user want?
  • Is the query time-sensitive? Does it require the most up to date information? E.g.' Weather in London today.

Relevance - Google ensures that the pages it returns in results are relevant to the original search query. It does this by constantly crawling the internet for new or updated web pages. The critical thing that Google is looking for here is keywords that feature both on the web page and within the users search query.

Quality - With millions of web pages out there to choose from, Google needs to make sure it's selecting the very best ones to appear in search results. The algorithm will analyse the quality of a web page by taking into account the level of expertise the content offers and the website's trustworthiness.

User experience - Once Google has assessed a website's content, it will look at the quality of the user experience. Google wants to ensure that any page it presents to a user is user friendly and responsive. Some of the elements it takes into consideration include page speed, navigation and security.

Context - Which search results Google presents to a user is also based on the individual context of the search. The search engine will consider the user's location and search history to ensure the results are exactly what they're looking for.

Google doesn't just rely on its bots and algorithms to rank web pages. They also employ thousands of real-life humans called Search Quality Raters who evaluate the quality of the actual search results for any given search term. While the feedback from these raters doesn't directly impact the rankings of a web page, it does help the search engine fine-tune its algorithms and ensure the systems are working to produce top results.

Here's a short clip from Google showing how real people make Google better:

Google is continuously monitoring and updating its algorithms to ensure they are working to their full potential. The search giants update their algorithms a lot. They make minor tweaks to it multiple times a day. Don’t worry though, these daily changes usually are minimal and not something you’ll notice or that will impact your rankings.

The changes you do need to keep an eye out for are the core updates. Several times a year, Google will make some core updates to its algorithm. Usually, they will announce that these are coming well in advance, giving you plenty of time to ensure your website is optimised for the upcoming changes.

Key Google Ranking Updates to know about

Over the past few years, some key core updates have had a significant impact on how the Google algorithm works and ranks web pages (yes, many of them do have memorable names!)

User Experience Update - June 2021

Link Spam update - July 2021

Panda - The Panda update focused on content and, in particular, aimed to filter out web pages that featured duplicate content and low-quality pages. It also sought to put an end to keyword stuffing, a popular process in the early days of the internet (remember those?!) where web admins would use a high frequency of keywords on a single page to make it rank better.

Rand Fishkin, CEO of Moz.com, talks about the update that first appeared back in 2011:

Penguin - The Penguin update significantly impacted SEO tactics as it focused on links, particularly spammy, low-quality or manipulated backlinks. Many SEO experts had been building extensive backlink profiles to their websites with the help of link farms and buying low-quality links. The Penguin update stopped this as it focused on ranking pages with a natural backlink profile that wasn’t over-optimised.

Hummingbird - The Hummingbird update had one of the most significant impacts on how the algorithm works as it shifted the focus away from keywords and onto user intent. For the first time, Google aimed to understand the search query and the reasons behind it to ensure it was presenting the most relevant results to users.

Pigeon - The Pigeon update got its name thanks to the focus is placed on local search results. The Pigeon update aimed to tie in Google’s local search algorithm more closely with its main web algorithm to improve the relevance and quality of local search results.

Mobile Update - In 2019, Google went ‘mobile-first. This meant that the algorithm would now use the mobile version of a web page in its indexing and ranking. The idea behind it was to reflect better how users were increasingly searching. More than ever, people were and still are using mobile devices to access the internet, and Google wanted to ensure the results it provided were mobile-friendly.

RankBrain - RankBrain is a component of Google’s core algorithm that uses machine learning to determine the most relevant results. Google uses RankBrain as an interpretation model that can apply various possible factors such as location or search history to a query to understand the searchers true intent.

Bert - Google stated that their Bert update was one of the most important updates of recent years. Bert aims to better understand the context of a query by helping Google understand what the words in a search query mean and what context they are being used in. The Bert update was yet another step in Google’s mission to understand the intent behind a search to produce the most relevant results.

Sometimes, you might find your website impacted by one of Google’s core algorithm updates despite doing everything right. If you do, it’s essential to be patient; many of the updates roll out over several days, meaning you may notice constant changes. Wait for everything to settle down before acting.

Ranking Factors

SEO Ranking Factors 2021

Whilst Google and other search engines haven’t explicitly revealed the calculations and algorithms to rank content, they have given us some guidance. Algorithm updates and announcements have allowed SEO experts to understand what factors Google bots are actively looking for. Below you’ll find some of the ranking factors that Google considers a vital part of its algorithm.

Recommended read: SEO Ranking Factors 2021

High-quality, relevant content - I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it, content is king. It doesn’t matter how many technical tweaks you make to your website; Google will never rank your pages without high-quality, relevant content.

Google likes content that’s new and unique. Content that answers users’ questions provides them with the information they were looking for when they made their original search query. One thing Google hates is duplicate content. If the search engine finds duplicate content on your website, it can negatively impact your SEO, so it’s essential to ensure the content you’re creating is original.

Backlinks - Google crawlers will find your website with the help of backlinks. The more links you have pointing to your website, the more reliable Google will deem it to be.

Each link to your website is a signal to Google that someone trusts your content enough to direct users to it. If you can get websites with a high authority to link to yours, then even better. If Google can see that a well-ranking and authoritative website vouches for you, it will give you a great chance of ranking well in search results.

Mobile friendly - In today’s age, more people than ever are using mobile devices to access the internet. Thanks to the way users search and use websites; Google went ‘mobile first’ in 2019. This means that the search engine will now use the mobile version of your website when indexing and ranking it, not the desktop version.

With Google placing such a focus on mobile, it’s crucial that your website is mobile friendly and optimised to function on different mobile devices. If Google thinks the overall experience of your website lacks when accessed on a mobile device, you will face a fall in rankings. Check to see if your site is mobile-friendly here.

Page speed - How fast (or slow) your website loads is another crucial factor for Google. With so many options online, if a user lands on a slow website, chances are they will leave and find a faster alternative, which you don’t want.

Google puts an increased focus on user experience and ensures that users have a positive experience when on your website. This is why page speed is so important. If your website is too slow, Google judges that as a poor user experience and will rank you accordingly. Check out your website performance with Google page speed insights.

User intent - Google matches your content to the intent of the user to rank it appropriately. The search engine wants to understand not just what the user is searching for but why they are making the query.

Google works to understand what type of content the user is looking for when making particular queries to ensure the results they provide are relevant. For your website to rank for specific search terms, you need to ensure that your content matches the original query’s user intent. Please read my article on levelling up your SEO with user intent.

Keyword optimisation - One of the most common SEO tactics is keyword optimisation, and it’s popular for a good reason. When indexing and analysing your website, Google will actively look for keywords and phrases that match the user’s original search query.

Creating keyword-rich content is vital, and there are various ways you can incorporate keywords into your website, including in your title tags, headings, anchor texts and image alt text.

Click-through-rate - Another ranking factor that features in Google’s focus on user experience is click-through-rate. This refers to the number of users who are clicking on your website in search results. The more times your result is selected, the higher Google will rank it as this signals that the result is relevant to the original search query.

You can help to improve your click-through rate by optimising your title tags and meta-descriptions to ensure they’re encouraging users to select your website over other results.

Website security - Way back in 2014, Google announced that it would now consider HTTPS as a ranking factor, meaning website security is a key player when it comes to ranking web pages.

HTTPS encrypts the data between a website and a user’s device and ensures the connection between the two is safe and secure. Google isn’t willing to rank websites that put internet security at risk, so you need to ensure your website is safe and secure and running on HTTPS.

These are just some of the ranking factors that Google uses to index and analyse web pages. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the exact formula the search engine uses to rank content, but you’ll notice that almost all ranking factors fall under two categories: quality content and user experience.

Google has advanced from just analysing the content on a page to understanding and determining how a user navigates a website and what their overall online experience is. SEO isn’t just about keywords and backlinks; although these are two essential factors, you should be focusing on how your web page meets the needs of users both in terms of the information and the quality of the experience you provide them.

We’ll cover all of the above in more detail further on in the guide, too, so you can ensure you’re optimising your website with Google’s key ranking factors in mind.

 

Section 3 - Keywords 

Keyword optimisation is SEO bread and butter. From honing your niche to undertaking keyword research, keywords will transform your online presence once you get them right. 

What are keywords?

In SEO terms, keywords are the words and phrases that a user enters into a search engine when making their search query. The keywords that you choose to target should be an accurate representation of the content on your website. If you look at your website and break down all the content, including text, images and videos, into key topics and simple words and phrases, these are your keywords.

showing keywords within copy

For your website to appear in search results for specific search terms, you need to ensure that your website offers high-quality content relevant to your chosen keywords. Getting to grips with keywords is especially important when creating a content strategy for your website. If you know what keywords you are hoping to target, you can ensure that you plan your online content around them.

Keywords are an essential part of any SEO strategy because they bridge the initial search query inputted into a search engine by a user and the content on your website. When improving your search rankings, the main goal is to increase the number of people who visit your website after you appear in search results. The keywords that you choose to target will help determine how well you rank and the amount and type of traffic you get to your website.

When deciding what keywords you want to target, you need to think carefully about both the content you provide and the search behaviour of your target audience. For your web pages to rank well and drive visitors to your website, you need to understand the exact needs of your target users. For instance, if you owned a high-end homeware company that specialises in glass wear, you may determine that a target keyword should be ‘luxury glasses’; however, this is a phrase that could also be used by users who are on the hunt for a new pair of designer reading glasses.

You must understand your target audience’s behaviour, search intent, and language your audience uses when selecting the keywords you want to target and rank for. The best way you can do this is by undertaking keyword research.

What is Keyword research & how to do it?

Keyword research is the process of finding and analysing the search terms that users enter into a search engine to determine the most relevant keywords for you to target in your SEO strategy.

Keyword research gives you valuable insight into the topics that users are searching for, the language they’re using to make those searches and the intent behind the initial search query.

There are various ways you can find and analyse keywords to help form your overall content strategy.

Determine relevant topics in your niche - The first thing to do is think about the relevant topic areas that your website content falls into. Think about the key areas of your business and the topics that you would want to show up in search results for. Once you’ve determined the key topics your business focuses on, you can hone down each one with multiple keywords. For instance, if one of the topic areas your business focuses on is sofas, you can then determine relevant keywords and phrases within this topic such as ‘corner sofa’, ‘recliner sofa’ and ‘leather sofa’.

Always remember that the keywords you target need to be reflected on your website. It would be no use targeting’ leather sofa’ if you don’t actually sell any.

Look to Google for help - If you want to rank in Google’s results, then you may as well make use of the search engine when undertaking your keyword research. You can use various features, including autocomplete and related searches, to help you broaden your list of potential keywords.

To make use of Google’s autocomplete feature, you simply need to type in one of the keywords you’ve already determined into the search bar and see what search suggestions Google provides. 

For instance, if you’ve determined that dining table is a keyword you want to target when you type it into the search bar, Google’s autocomplete feature will suggest key phrases relating to dining tables that users search for. You can then analyse which of these would be relevant for your website.

Google autocomplete example

Google’s related searches feature works similarly by offering you similar search terms to your initial search at the bottom of your Google results page:

Use a specific keyword research tool - There are various tools available online that can undertake keyword research for you, offering up multiple options of keywords that you can look to target. Many keyword tools will analyse key metrics to provide you with the most relevant list of keywords. You can use the metrics they provide to handpick the best keywords from the list, ensuring you’re not wasting your time targeting a keyword with little chance of a conversion. Most keyword tools work by requiring you to input an initial keyword and then providing an extensive list of related words and phrases.

SEO tools such as Ahrefs and my personal favourite, SEMrush, can provide keyword lists based on both exact match and phrase match searches. Tools like these are a great way to uncover keywords and phrases that you may not have thought of in your previous research stages.

Here’s a screenshot of SEMRush’s excellent Keyword Magic Tool: 

keyword research snapshot on SEMRush

Grab a FREE SEMRush Trial

Undertake competitor analysis - No matter what your business niche, the likelihood is you’ll have undertaken competitor analysis for various areas of your business strategy. Deciding on your keywords is no different, and competitor analysis can be a great way of adding high-value keywords to your targeting list. Take a look at what key terms some of your competitors are ranking for. If they’re ranking for them, then you should be too. 

Here’s a snapshot of the competitor intelligence reports that are available on SEMRush. You can look at your competitors top ranking keywords, traffic estimates and a whole host of other metrics:

Competitor research on SEMRush

.... now THAT'S useful data. It's like having access to a competitors Google analytics!

Keyword metrics 

Now you’ve got an idea of how you can research and find keywords to target; you need to understand precisely what you should be analysing to refine your list to the very best ones.

There are three key things you need to think about when analysing keywords. They are:

  • Relevance
  • Difficulty
  • Volume

Ideally, you want to be targeting keywords that are the perfect balance of being relevant whilst having a high search volume and low difficulty level.

Relevance - Everything keeps coming back to relevance. Google will only rank content relevant to the search term, so when undertaking your keyword research, you must analyse whether or not the content on your website is relevant to the keyword.

With your researched keywords, you need to be focused on keywords that are genuinely relevant to your business:

Which keywords are relevant and which are not?

Your content needs to meet the user’s needs and provide them with the exact resource they were looking for when making the initial search query. Not only this, but you need to make sure that your content is the most appropriate option. Google isn’t going to rank you above a site that has higher-quality and more relevant content. To get the top spot, you’ve got to be the best.

Take a look at the SERPs for your chosen keywords and make a note of two things. Firstly the type of content Google is ranking for your search term. You may be an e-commerce business selling camping equipment and decide you want to rank for “best camping equipment” however, the results for this search term are all product reviews and expert guides. This tells you that Google sees this term as informational and will not rank a product page.

You can also use the SERPs to analyse the content that currently ranks in the top spot for your targeted search term. You need to determine if you can compete with them in terms of the quality and relevance of your content.

Volume - It’s all well and good ranking in first place for a keyword, but if nobody is searching for it, then that top position is worthless. You may as well not rank for it at all if it’s never being inputted into the search box.

Search volume is calculated by the number of times a keyword is searched per month, and you need to find a balance between targeting high-value keywords with a high search volume and being realistic. 

Image showing search volume

It’s unlikely that you will rank for the most popular search terms, especially if you’re a new website, so it may be more beneficial to opt for different variations. For example, the likelihood of you ranking for “Dining Tables” is pretty slim (in the short-term anyway); however, you would have a much better chance if you targeted “luxury wooden dining tables”.

Don’t put all of your efforts into ranking for keywords where the search volume is too high or too low. Keyword research has progressed substantially from when SEO experts first began undertaking it. Back then, finding the terms with the highest search volume and stuffing them into your content was the way. Now you need to evaluate what your chances are of being successful before you begin targeting.

Difficulty - Keyword difficulty refers to how hard (or easy) it is for you to rank well for a specific search term. It’s decided by analysing various factors, including the search volume of a term and the quality of the content on your page versus the quality of your competitors.

There are various tools you can use to discover the keyword difficulty of your chosen search terms. These tools will usually give the keyword a score; the higher the score, the harder it is to rank for that search term.

Here’s how it looks in SEMRush, they use a ‘traffic light’ system to show how hard (or indeed easy) it will be to rank for a specific term:

Keyword difficulty SEM Rush

When determining how difficult it will be for you to rank for a keyword, there are certain aspects you need to consider.

  • The quality of your competitor’s website and content. You’ll need to take a look at their on-site optimisation for the chosen keyword, the quality of the content they’re producing and their backlink profile.
  • The authority of your website. Google only wants to rank websites with good authority, so ensuring you’ve built up a strong backlink profile of your own is essential.
  • The quality of your content. Can you create content that targets your chosen keyword that is better than what your competitors are producing? If the answer is no, you can presume that it will be too difficult for you to rank well for your chosen keyword.

Google will consistently rank the content that it deems to be authoritative. Regardless of your chosen niche and keywords, you need to ensure that you’re doing everything you can to position yourself as an authoritative voice on the topic. Make sure you’re creating informative and valuable content, and keep promoting that content to prompt social media coverage and backlinks. It’s also worth looking at the type of website that currently ranks for that search term. If it’s one with high authority, such as Forbes or Wikipedia, then the chances of you knocking them off the top spot are almost non-existent.

Uncover your competitors keywords with the SEMRush Keyword tool FREE

What are Long-tail keywords?

Long-tail keywords are keywords that are longer and more specific than standard search queries. Long-tail keywords will often have a higher conversion rate as users that input them have a stronger search intent.

For example, a user searching for “trainers” is much less likely to convert than someone who searches for “Adidas Yeezy Boost Trainers”. The second option is more specific and suggests that the user knows exactly what results they are looking for.

long tail keyword graph

While long-tail keywords have more specific user intent, their search volume is usually much lower, so is their search difficulty. 

Typically a long-tail keyword is used when a user is looking to take action. They aren’t looking for top-level content and instead have broken through the surface and want more in-depth information and resources.

You can approach long-tail keyword research in the same way you do standard keyword research. The key things to think about are the same, relevance, search volume and difficulty.

A great way to find long-tail keyword options to target is in Google’s related search feature. Here you will often find variations and longer phrases relating to your standard search terms.

How to implement keywords on your site

Once you’ve undertaken your keyword research and have a good understanding of the search terms that are most appropriate for you to target, you need to begin incorporating the keywords into your website. However, it’s no use just filling every page with as many keywords as possible to try and get Google’s attention; you still need to ensure you’re creating relevant and valuable content.

When adding your keywords to your content, you need to be careful. Keyword stuffing refers to the process of literally stuffing your website with keywords. Previously SEO experts would fill pages with keywords, repeating them in content, using backlink anchor text, hiding them in meta descriptions and even writing them in a font colour the same as the web page’s background colour to hide them. Unsurprisingly Google takes a negative view on keyword stuffing, and it’s classed as a black hat SEO tactic. It’s crucial, therefore, that you include your keywords naturally. Otherwise, you risk being penalised.

You should add your keywords to each page of your website where both Google’s bots and human users will naturally look. This is the best way to highlight that you have the exact content that they are looking for. The main places you should look to include your keywords include:

  • Headers (also known as header tags) are often the first thing people see when they visit a web page, meaning they’re a key place to highlight the content’s main subject. Make sure you feature your keyword here; after all, if your keyword isn’t a relevant description of your content, then you shouldn’t be targeting it in the first place! 
Image showing header tags
  • Sub-headings - Sub-headings are a great place to tell Google’s bots what the content on your page is about. Not only do they break up text for a better user experience, they’re an ideal way to repeatedly feature your keywords without appearing spammy. 
Subheadings in content
  • Body text - The main body text of your web page should be well optimised to feature your keywords. Make sure you feature them as many times as you can whilst still keeping the content natural. You don’t want to make it obvious or get penalised for keyword stuffing but you can include different variations of your keyword in your body content to help towards improving your rankings.
Body text keyword mentions
  • Title tag and meta description - Your title tag and meta description is what appears in search results. Google is much more likely to rank a web page that features the search term in the title tag and meta description as this is a clear indicator that the content on the page matches the search term and intent. Title tags and meta descriptions are also a good way of signalling to users that they will find the content they’re looking for on your webpage; if they feature the keywords they’ve searched for, then they’re more likely to click on your listing.
image showing source code
  • Image alt text - Image alt text is a great way to speak directly to search engines. Alt text works as a description of the image and by featuring your keywords here you’re signaling to Google that the content you’ve created is relevant to your target keyword. Alt text allows search engines to read your image and understand whether or not it’s relevant to your content and search terms.
Image showing alt text

Adding your keywords to the above areas is a great way to ensure your website is well optimised for your chosen search terms without it appearing unnatural or spammy to both search engines and users. Just because you’ve added your keywords to your website doesn’t mean you’re going to automatically climb the rankings but failing to follow one of the most basic SEO principles can undoubtedly impact your overall SEO strategy.

My bottom line here is to write for people and not search engines. Have the keyword focus in the back of your mind and let your content flow naturally.

Section 4 - Content

You might think that content creation and SEO are two different marketing activities. In reality, however, the two go hand in hand, and you should never underestimate the importance of good content.

The power of content

There’s no point putting time, money and effort into your SEO strategy if your content is a load of rubbish. Without high-quality content, you’ll never be able to reap the full benefits of your SEO strategy: quality, relevant content ranks and converts.

When your content aligns with your broader SEO strategy, it can catapult your website up the rankings. However, if your content is letting the side down, it can be nearly impossible to get anywhere close to the top spot for your target keywords.

Here’s Google’s Aurora Morales explaining more on content quality (and what to avoid):

Without high-quality content, search engines won’t be able to read the full potential of your website. It will be too hard for them to understand what your website is about and what it offers to users.

When we refer to website content from an SEO perspective, we mean anything that can offer visitors value and information. It can be anything from blog posts, guides and tutorials to case studies, whitepapers and press releases. Anything that can provide visitors with the information they’re looking for and that positions you as an authoritative voice in that field.

The benefits of great content 

Creating great content on your website can have many benefits, all of which work towards improving the success of your overall SEO strategy.

Improves your click-through rate - Having high-quality, informative content will encourage users to click through and visit your website. The higher your click-through rate, the better as this directly tells Google that users deem your website a relevant resource for their original search query, and the search engine will rank you accordingly.

If users think your website provides the content they’re looking for, they will be more likely to select your website from the SERPs. Think about precisely what kind of content your target audience is looking for and create it.

Generate backlinks - Google values websites that have a strong backlink profile. The more high-authority websites you have linking to your content, the higher Google will rank it. Backlinks work like a seal of approval for your website.

High-quality content is the key to getting backlinks. Nobody is going to link to content they don’t think is relevant or up to scratch. If you can create content that’s informative and positions you as an industry leader, then you’re more likely to be able to gain backlinks that point to your on-site content.

Provides keyword opportunities - How else will you incorporate your keywords into your website other than by creating content? High-quality content of all different types is a great way to naturally and strategically feature your target keywords.

Without content such as blogs, articles, and whitepapers, it can be difficult to naturally include your keywords on your website without it appearing spammy and evident to both users and Google. It would be best if you always were looking for ways to feature your keywords in a way that is as natural as possible.

Lowers your bounce rate - If you’re creating content that users are looking for and that answers the original intent behind their search query, then they are much less likely to bounce straight back off your website once they’ve landed on it.

Creating high-quality, informative content highlights your authority on a topic and allows you to internally link to other pieces of content and web pages. This is an excellent way of keeping users on your website. If they enjoy one part of your content, then the likelihood is that they will visit other areas of your website too.

How to optimise your content for SEO success

 When it comes to creating content for your website, there are some key things you need to think about to make sure it’s optimised for SEO success.

Neil Patel did a great job of summing up how to write great content to rank on the first page of Google:

Choosing your topics - The content you create should be based on the content that your target users are searching for. You need to understand both your niche and what you can offer to your audience, and what your audience is looking for.

When choosing the topics you want to create content around, you need to look at your target keywords. Often your keywords and particularly any long-tail keywords you’re targeting, will provide you with the topic. You can begin to group your keywords and decide which fall into each topic.

For instance, if you’re a gym offering online personal training, some of your target keywords might be “online personal training”, “benefits of online personal training”, “positives of online personal training”, and “pros of online personal training”. All of these search terms will be looking for the same content. You don’t need to create a separate piece of content that targets each one. Instead, you can create one high-quality piece of content that is optimised for all of those search terms.

When choosing the topics for your content, you need to make sure that you select ones that you can successfully position yourself as an expert on. There’s no point in having content on your site that you know very little about. Users will be able to immediately tell if the author of the content has no more knowledge on the topic than they do.

It’s essential to think about the search intent behind the keywords you’re targeting in your content too. Remember, you don’t always need to be pushing sales and your services on to users. Sometimes a user is looking for more information and advice rather than products or services. Not only will matching your content to user intent help your rankings and encourage users to click through to your website, but it will also help you to build trust and brand awareness and reach new users who may well convert into customers later on.

Get a FREE Content Audit 

Content quality - With so many websites out there, almost every topic is over-saturated. It’s improbable that you’ll think up a topic that absolutely nobody on the internet has already written about in some way, shape or form. What you need to focus on therefore is what will set you apart from the content that’s already out there? One of the answers is quality.

If you can create infinitely better content than that of your competitors, then it doesn’t matter how over-saturated the market is; you’ll be the best. To be the best, you need to look at the content already ranking in the top spots for your chosen keywords and figure out what you can offer that will make your content better.

There are certain things you can do to ensure you’re producing content of the very best quality, including:

  • Cover your chosen topic more thoroughly than your competitors. Offer additional information, insight or more up to date data than what they are providing.
  • Provide original expertise or data that is unique to your business. Do you have a member of staff who is truly an expert on this topic? Perhaps you have the resources to carry out new research? Find a way to add value that only your business can to the topic area.
  • Link to other high-quality websites and resources on this topic area. Outbound links can help Google to understand the context of your website better.
  • Use a layout that makes your content easy to read and follow. Remember to think about how the user experience will be impacted by this content. Please don’t make it too overwhelming, or you risk losing visitors.
  • Include different forms of multimedia such as images, video, soundbites and illustrations to help break up your content and make it more appealing and exciting to users.

Content length - One of the biggest debates in the SEO world surrounding content is how long it should be. While some people think the longer, the better, others believe that concise content is what ranks and converts.

When it comes to how Google ranks content of varying lengths, the search engine tends to prioritise longer content. More often than not, longer content is more informative and valuable and will answer the original search query in detail. Therefore Google will rank it accordingly.

This is what Google says on their SEO Starter guide regarding content:

What Google are saying about content length on their SEO starter guide
  • There’s no perfect word count to aim for, although as a rule, we suggest always aiming for at least 500-1000 words when writing content such as blog posts and articles. Longer content that hits around 2500 words is classed as cornerstone content. This is where you can really position yourself as an expert on your chosen topic.

    Longer content gives you more opportunity to send Google signs and information on what your content is about. You can add more variants of your keywords, particularly long-form keywords, and make use of more images and alt texts, headings, and internal links.

    You should never compromise the quality of your content to reach a word count, though. Google is looking for relevant, high-quality and authoritative content. If you’ve started rambling about unrelated topics or are repeating points you’ve already made to add some extra words, then Google will sense what you’re doing and won’t judge your content to be of a high enough quality to rank well.

    When you’re creating your content, there are a few things you can do to make sure it’s the optimal length:

    • Look at the results that currently rank for your keywords. If each result on the first page of results is a 2000 word article, you can determine that this is what Google deems relevant to this search term. The likelihood is you won’t rank against these pages with a 500-word article and instead will need to create longer-form content to be in the running. An excellent tool to use is Word Counter
Image showing word counter
    • Quality over quantity. If you don’t have anything useful to say, don’t say it. Don’t bulk out your content just for the sake of it.
    • Be as comprehensive as possible in your content. Think about all of the information a user is looking for when making their search query and ensure you include it in your content. Don’t miss something out that they will be likely to find elsewhere.

    Content updates - When you’ve got a piece of content that is ranking well and converting visitors, it would be easy to think that you can forget all about it and let it do its thing. What you should be doing, however, is keeping a close eye on it.

    Google is constantly crawling the internet for new and updated content, so there’s always the risk that the search engine will find another piece of content that it thinks is better than yours, pushing you down in the rankings.

    Keeping an eye on your existing content and updating it as appropriate isn’t just about preventing a drop in rankings; it’s also a great way to help you climb up to the top spot. Adding regular updates to your content is a great way to get Google to reassess your website and hopefully push you up the rankings.

    Updating your content is also the key to ensuring it’s relevant and stays that way. You need to ensure that you’re providing users with the most up to date and accurate information. You must remember exactly what content you have on your website to update it accordingly when new information is made available.

    Keyword optimisation 

    A crucial part of creating SEO friendly content is ensuring it’s optimised for your target keywords. Including your keyword within your content is one of the key ways to tell Google that your content is relevant to the search query.

    Whilst you don’t want to go overboard and make your content seem unnatural, there are various ways you can feature your target keyword in your content to help push you up the rankings.

    Title tag - The title tag is one of the most influential places to put your keyword. Your title tag is the title that will appear in the SERPs if you rank for a search term. Title tags work by telling Google exactly what the content on a webpage is about. Therefore it should be pretty evident that it needs to include your target keyword.

    Read The art of writing the perfect title tag.

    Title tags are relatively unique in the world of SEO in that they should be created with both Google and the end-user in mind. While they tell Google what the content on your web page is about, they also tell the user.

    When a user is presented with a page of results after making a search query, they will use the title tags to determine whether or not the result is relevant to what they’re looking for and, ultimately, if they will click the result and visit the website.

title tags in Google search

If your title tag includes your target keyword, that sends a clear signal to Google and the user that the web page features relevant content to the initial search query.

Your title tag is clickable from the SERPs and will take users straight to your webpage. There are limited characters for title tags, though, and Google will usually show only around 60 characters in its results, so it’s essential to make sure you feature your keyword at the beginning of your title tag to avoid it being cut off.

Meta description - The meta description is the description of your web page that appears underneath your title tag in search results. Meta descriptions are a great way of giving users more information about your web page’s content, helping them make a more informed decision about which result they will choose.

Google will also sometimes use meta descriptions to help better filter results to ensure they present the most appropriate options to users.

Anything that describes the content on your website should feature your targeted keywords, and the meta description is no different. Google will usually limit meta descriptions to around 160 characters. Your meta description must be long enough to provide additional detail without being so long that Google cuts it short.

When featuring your keyword, you should aim to use it once or twice in the meta description, any more, and you risk it appearing unnatural to both Google and users.

Body text - There’s no ideal number for the number of times you should feature a keyword within the main body of your content; however, the most important thing is that you include it at all. If your body text doesn’t mention your target keyword once, Google won’t think the content is relevant.

Where possible, try to include your keyword within the first 200 words of your content. The introduction to your content will typically explain what the article is about. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for your keyword to feature here.

Remember not to focus on including your keyword, causing you to sacrifice the quality of your content. You should always prioritise high-quality content that provides the user with the information they’re looking for; incorporating your keyword naturally into that is simply a bonus!

Subheadings - Subheadings are a great way to break up long paragraphs of text and make your content more accessible to users. Large chunks of text can be off-putting, so using subheadings can help improve the overall user experience of your website.

They’re also a great place to feature your keywords. Using your header tags (H1, H2, H3 etc.) can help to tell Google what the content is about and the key, important topics and information your content provides.

Internal link anchor text - Internal links are a great way of directing users to more content on your website and can help to increase their trust in you, hopefully prompting them to convert.

It would help if you always tried to feature internal links within your content and the anchor text (the clickable text that appears in your content) is a great place to add your target keyword...providing it’s relevant to the content you’re linking to.

Here’s an example of natural internal linking:

internal linking example

Using your keyword as the anchor text for an internal link helps show Google that your website features relevant content for the search term and directs them to where they can find it. You’re making Google’s job easier for them.

This is where having a content plan comes in useful. If you plan out your content successfully, you can create an internal linking structure whereby each piece of content links to another, helping to signify to Google the relevance of your content for the keyword it’s targeting.

Don’t be tempted to use your target keyword as the anchor text for an external link, though. Doing this is basically telling Google that this external page is more relevant to the keyword than your page and risks Google deciding to rank it higher in search results.

Image metadata - Using images on your web pages and particularly within your content can help to improve the user experience of your site, breaking up large chunks of text and helping to make the page more visually appealing. They’re also a great place to add your keywords.

Yes, that’s right, the metadata of an image is the perfect place to include your target keyword. It would be best to have your keyword in the image file name, caption and title. The most important place to feature your keyword, however, is the image alt text.

alt text description example

Alt text describes the image for both visually impaired users and Google's bots and crawlers when they’re indexing your site. Google can’t read an image in the same way a human can and instead relies on the alt text to tell it what the image is of and if it’s relevant to the content.

The alt text will also help your image to rank in Google Image Search which will in turn help to bring more visitors to your website.

URL - Another good place to ensure you feature your keyword is in the URL for the individual web page. If you’ve featured your keyword in the page title then it should feature in the URL that’s automatically generated for the page but if not you can alter this before hitting publish.

showing keyword in URL

When creating your URL, try to keep it short and straightforward, making it easy to read for users. Whilst it’s certainly not the most important SEO factor, it won’t do you any harm to include your keyword.

One of the benefits of including your keyword in the URL is that if someone links to the web page using the raw link (e.g. places the link in the text and doesn’t use an anchor text), then the backlink will include your target keyword.

Common content mistakes to avoid 

Often people will make the same common mistakes when creating website content to try and impress Google and rank well. They’re listed below so that you can avoid making them too!

Keyword stuffing - Whilst it’s important to feature your keywords in your content, don’t be tempted to go overboard. Stuffing your content with keywords over and over again will simply make your content appear spammy to users. Google hates keyword stuffing and won’t rank your content if it thinks you’re trying dodgy tactics to beat its algorithm.

Not targeting the search query - When you plan out and create your content, you need to ensure it’s actively targeting the intent behind the initial search query if you want it to appear in search results. Think about precisely what it is that users are searching for and provide them with that content. It’s easy for people to think up relevant content topics for their business, but these are useless if nobody is looking for that information.

Duplicating content - Your content needs to be unique. If Google thinks you’ve got duplicate content on your website, then it will penalise you in the rankings. Even if you think you’ve answered a particular question or topic elsewhere on your website, you can’t just copy and paste it across. It can be tempting to copy your competitors’ content on their website; after all, if it ranks for them, it will rank for you, right? No. Not only is that plagiarism, but Google will also know that the content on your site isn’t unique.

Not making use of content formats - A common mistake that people make when creating content is simply writing extensive body content and clicking upload without using formatting features such as subheadings and bullet points. Subheadings are a great way of inputting your keywords into your content, and opting for different formats helps break up your content and improve the user experience.

Your content isn’t evergreen - Evergreen content is content that will still be relevant and drive traffic to your website years down the line. You may be tempted into creating content around viral trends or news stories; however, remember, in today’s digital world, this stays relevant for just a few days, sometimes even less. Rather than focusing on too time-sensitive content to appear relevant, put the time into creating evergreen content that users will always be looking for.

Evergreen content will help drive traffic to your site for many years instead of trend-led pieces, which may produce an initial burst but that will eventually taper off and offer you no benefit.

Section 5 - Technical & On-page SEO

Technical and on-page SEO techniques work together to help you improve your rankings. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed about learning the ins and outs; here, we’ll take you through everything you need to know and have you on your way to SEO success in no time.

The difference between technical and on-page SEO 

When it comes to mastering your SEO strategy, you need to understand how all the different techniques work on their own and, more importantly, how they come together to create a website that Google will rank well.

We can divide SEO techniques into three categories:

  • Technical SEO
  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO

When implementing an SEO strategy, you must focus on all three, as all will impact how Google reads and ranks your website. So what do the three categories mean? 

Technical SEO - Technical SEO refers to the techniques that help Google to crawl and index your website. These are the “back-end” elements that will directly impact how your website is analysed and indexed by Google and, in turn, how well the search engine will rank you. If you haven’t mastered your technical SEO, then you can wave goodbye to good search rankings!

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On-page SEO - On-page SEO refers to the overall setup and content of your website. These elements help Google determine aspects such as the quality of the user experience and how relevant your content is to your target keywords. On-page SEO is the process of optimising every element of a web page from top to bottom. These techniques focus more on the aspects that a user will see when they visit your website.

onpage SEO example

Off-page SEO - Off-page SEO differs from technical and on-page SEO in that it refers to SEO techniques that are undertaken away from your website. The main focus of off-page SEO is driving relevant traffic to your website through social shares and, mainly, building a solid backlink profile. We’ll discuss off-page SEO in more detail in the link building section.

Some SEO techniques can be classed as technical and on-page; remember, SEO is a recipe of various ingredients. They all work together and complement each other, but if one is missing, it risks ruining the result.

Below we’ve broken down the key SEO techniques, both technical and on-page, that, if you can master, will set you on the path for ranking success.

Internal Linking

 In the next section, we’ll discuss the importance of building external backlinks for SEO but what some people often forget is that internal linking can have just as much of an impact on the success of your SEO strategy.

Internal links are links from one page on the same domain to another and are a great way of directing users to other pages of your website, helping to keep them on your site for longer and hopefully increasing the chance that they will convert.

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Internal links not only direct users around your website, but they work in the same way for Google’s crawlers and bots too. Linking to other pages on your website directs Google to more of your content, making it easier for the search engine to crawl your whole website, looking for high-quality content that it can rank for relevant search queries.

The more links you have pointing to a page, the more important Google will determine that page to be, and that goes for internal links too. If you’re linking to a particular page, often Google will acknowledge that this page must feature relevant and authoritative content.

Internal links will help to improve three key things:

User experience - A crucial part of the user experience of your site is navigation. A user needs to clearly and easily navigate your website, moving from one web page to the next to find exactly what they’re looking for. Internal links make moving around your website infinitely easier and therefore help to improve the overall user experience of your website.

Website crawlability - If no links are pointing to a web page, how is Google meant to find it? Internally linking to other pages within your website will help Google to crawl your website, finding new and updated content. You can make Google’s job much easier by implementing a solid internal linking structure.

 Search rankings - Whilst internal links may not carry as much weight as external backlinks when it comes to ranking a page; they can have an impact. If Google can see that you are regularly linking to an internal page using relevant anchor text, it will help its bots understand the linked page better, ranking it accordingly.

Link equity between pages

There are two main types of internal links that you can use within your website:

  • Structural links
  • Contextual links

Structural links are generally created within the design of your website and include elements such as menus, sidebars, footers and headers. They are the links that allow users to navigate your website easily. Structural links ensure that every page of your website is accessible without having to type the URL in, meaning no page goes missing.

Contextual links are the ones that you’ll mainly focus on when it comes to your SEO strategy. These are the ones that link to other pieces of content on your website and are used to offer users more context or information on a specific topic.

When creating a new piece of content, think about which existing pages it would be relevant to link to from within the body of the text and which keywords the linked page is targeting. These keywords should form part of your anchor text.

If you have a piece of content that ranks particularly well or a page with an excellent page rank, then these can be used to help boost other relevant pages on your website. For example, if you have a blog article on the benefits of protein powder that’s built up a good authority and you want to boost your e-commerce product page where you sell protein powders, an internal link from the article to the product page may well help to improve the product page’s authority and ranking.

You don’t need to add hundreds of internal links to each page for it to be effective. That would probably end up having the opposite effect. Depending on how long your content is, 2 or 3 internal links will be enough to start making an impact. As a rule, try to ensure that any page on your website is just three internal link clicks away from your homepage.

Sitemaps 

A sitemap is a blueprint for your website. It’s a structured list of all of the web pages that feature on your website, and they help search engines find, crawl and index every page, ensuring none are missed. Sitemaps can also tell Google which pages of your website are the most important.

image of sitemap

There are four main types of sitemap:

Normal XML Sitemap - This is the most common type of sitemap and the one that we will focus on for SEO purposes.

Video Sitemap - This is used to help Google understand the video content on your website.

News Sitemap - This helps Google find content websites that it will approve to be featured on Google News.

Image Sitemap - This allows Google to find all of the images hosted within your website.

Unlike most aspects of SEO, Sitemaps aren’t essential. Google themselves say that if your website is adequately linked thanks to your internal linking structure, then the search engine’s crawlers will be able to find every page anyway. Having a sitemap as well, though, certainly won’t do your website any harm.

Whilst not all websites need to have a sitemap; some would undoubtedly benefit from having one, such as:

  • New websites with little or no existing backlinks directed to it.
  • Large websites with hundreds of thousands of pages, e.g. an eCommerce website.
  • Websites with multiple image files and galleries.
  • Websites that contain pages with no internal links.

Sitemaps are also helpful as they include a lastmod feature. This will tell crawlers when a page was last updated, allowing them to determine if they need to re-crawl the page. Don’t be tempted to keep changing these dates if you’re not updating the content. Google has warned SEO experts that changing the date for pages where the content hasn’t been updated is a spammy SEO tactic that it doesn’t approve of.

If your website runs on WordPress, then you can use your Yoast SEO plug-in to create your sitemap for you. One of the benefits of using Yoast is that it will automatically update your sitemap whenever you add a new page to your website (e.g. a new blog or service offering), meaning you don’t have to.

If you’re not on WordPress, there are various other sitemap generator tools that will create the sitemap of your website for you. Whichever way you choose to create it, once you’ve got your sitemap, make sure you manually check it to ensure it features every single page on your website.

Once you’re happy with your sitemap, you can submit it to Google. You do this by going to your Google Search Console, navigating to Index and then Sitemaps and copy and pasting your sitemap URL into the relevant field.

You can use your sitemap within Google Search Console to ensure that there are no problems with Google indexing your website. If Google cannot index certain web pages, you can find out why and proceed to make the relevant changes required.

If you have an extensive website, then you may need to create more than one sitemap. A sitemap can’t contain more than 50,000 URLs, and the file itself cannot be more than 10MB. If you have more than 50,000 pages (which seems like a lot, but if you’re an eCommerce company, this could easily be the case), then you will need to split your sitemap up and submit all of them to Google Search Console.

If you need to create an XML sitemap, click here for a free generator.

HTTPS

There’s pretty much no excuse for not running your website on HTTPS these days. If you haven’t already made the switch, you need to be quick about it. HTTPS secures the connection between the user and the website, encrypting any data they submit to the website server.

https encryption and Google & SEO

You can figure out instantly if a website you’re visiting is secure and running on HTTPS as opposed to HTTP just by looking at the address bar. Next to the URL, you should see a closed padlock; this tells you that the website is secure. If the padlock is open or there’s another icon there, then the website is vulnerable to a cyber attack.

If you access a site that runs on HTTP, then all of the data sharing between a user and the website is done in plain sight. This includes things such as log-in details and passwords. There is no encryption, and anyone can access the traffic and information. That’s the last thing a user wants; imagine logging into your online banking knowing that technically anyone could access your details!

HTTPS secures and encrypts this connection, ensuring that no third parties can intercept any of the shared data between the two. To ensure your website is secure and running on HTTPS, you need an SSL certificate. Web browsers will check your website’s certificate and confirm its validity with the issuer.

The main benefit of running on HTTPS should be obvious, security. If your site and server aren’t secure, you’ll never build trust in your website and online brand. Everyone has the right to browse the internet safely and know that their personal data and information can’t be hacked. Even if you don’t think you’re handling any sensitive data, ensuring your website is secure helps to place you as a brand that users can trust.

HTTPS is also important for your SEO. Although it’s certainly not the top ranking factor, back in 2014, Google announced that it would now consider HTTPS as a minor ranking factor. Therefore if you’re running on HTTPS, you can presume Google will take note of this when ranking you in search results, mainly if you’re fighting for a spot against a website that’s still on HTTP.

Not only can HTTPS impact your rankings it also plays a part in the overall user experience of your website. Users need to be able to trust the website that they’re visiting. As people get more tech-savvy, users are more aware than ever of the risks of cyber attacks and hackers accessing their personal data. If they visit your website and feel unsafe or like their information is at risk, they’re far more likely to leave and find an alternative result, indicating to Google that your website shouldn’t appear in search results.

Whilst HTTPS may only be a minor ranking signal for Google, having a safe and secure website should always be your top priority.

Pro-tip, if you’re using WordPress, the ReallySimpleSSL plugin is fantastic for quickly converting your site to HTTPS.

Mobile Friendly 

Being mobile-friendly essentially means that your website can shrink down and fit on any size screen and still work to its full potential. Users should access the website, view content and navigate around the site with the exact same ease that they could on the desktop version. If you achieve this, then your website is mobile-friendly.

Image showing mobile friendly check

A mobile-friendly website should be:

Responsive - A responsive design ensures that your website will adapt to whatever device a user is accessing it from. It's almost impossible to predict how many different mobile devices are out there, from tablets and smartphones to smartwatches and e-readers, meaning you need to ensure your website will automatically adapt to the screen size and functionality of the device being used.

It's no longer just enough to display the same website on both desktop and mobile. Imagine what your desktop site would look like shrunk down to fit on a mobile device. It would be almost impossible to read, and the screen would be overcrowded. Instead, you need a responsive design that adapts to mobile devices and ensures the user experience of your website for mobile users is just as good as that of desktop users.

Fast - A key part of the mobile experience of your website is the page load speed. Users who are searching on a mobile device want quick answers, and they're not willing to wait around for ages for your website to load. If it's too slow, they'll simply bounce straight back off it and find a different result from the SERPs.

In the next section, we'll talk more about page speed and the key things you can do to ensure your website loads as quickly as possible.

Easy to navigate - Navigation is a crucial part of good web design for desktop and mobile, but it's particularly vital when targeting mobile users. Users need to easily navigate around your website to find the information they're looking for. If they find it too difficult to figure out how to move around and struggle to decipher what page the information they're looking for is on, they'll leave and find an alternative option.

When it comes to mobile design, one of the best ways to ensure your website is easy to navigate is with a hamburger menu. A hamburger menu is a name given to a menu icon at the top of the page with three lines. When a user clicks on the three lines (or the "hamburger"), a drop-down menu appears featuring the various pages they can navigate to.

Opting for a menu like this will help to keep the mobile version of your website clean and clear and makes navigation for users as easy as possible.

 Readable - Users need to be able to read the content on your website; otherwise, what's the point in having it there in the first place? When optimising your website for mobile, it's all about ensuring the user experience for mobile users is up to scratch and a big part of that is the font you use for your content.

Whilst it might seem like something that can be an afterthought, you need to ensure that the font size is big enough to be read on a mobile device without the need to zoom in. Also, think about the colours and style you use, making sure they are easily legible on a mobile device. Stick to mobile-friendly fonts to have the best chance of users reading all of your content without bouncing off.

 Free from annoying pop-ups - Pop-ups can be a great marketing tool. They're often a great way of directing people to specific areas of your website or an essential piece of content, and they work particularly well when encouraging users to sign up for a newsletter or downloading a free guide. One area that they don't work very well in, however, is on a mobile website.

Pop-ups on a mobile device can be annoying and distracting. A pop-up on a mobile device will likely fill the whole screen, completely hiding the information a user is looking for and often, it's not entirely clear how to get rid of the pop-up. This leads to users getting frustrated and leaving the website altogether, adding to your bounce rate and indicating to Google that your website isn't good enough to appear in the SERPs.

Thumb friendly - Hear me out on this one. Most users, when scrolling through a website on a mobile device, will use their thumbs. You need to make sure, therefore, that your website is 'thumb friendly'. What we mean by this is that you don't want any buttons or clickable links that are too big, too small, or that will get in the way of a scrolling thumb. If users keep accidentally clicking on the wrong button thanks to a poor design, they will soon become frustrated and look for a different website that they find easier to navigate.

Users don't interact with a website on mobile in the same way that they do on desktop. Often they have less patience and are after more instant results meaning you have less wiggle room to make sure you're providing them with the content they're looking for.

When it comes to SEO, having a mobile-friendly website is crucial. From 2019 Google began 'mobile-first indexing, which means the search engine now uses the mobile version of your website when crawling and indexing rather than the desktop version. So having a mobile website that's up to scratch is pretty important. If your website isn't mobile-friendly, you can expect your ranking position in search results to be impacted considerably.

Click here to see if your site is mobile-friendly

Local optimisation for mobile 

Optimising your website for mobile goes hand in hand with optimising your website for local SEO too. When users are searching for local results, they more often than not are on-the-go meaning they're searching using a mobile device.

More and more mobile searches include phrases such as "near me" and "open now" or other location navigators.

Find restaurants near me in Google search results showing local results

Targeting local keywords such as "find restaurants near me" or "bakery Manchester city centre" are great examples of local keywords to target for localised, mobile search queries.

Users making a local search on mobile likely want key information, and they want it fast. This is where you can leverage your Google My Business page too by making sure it features all of the key information that mobile searchers are likely to be looking for, such as location, opening times and contact details.

Page Speed

It's not the noughties anymore. Nobody is willing to sit around and wait for a website to boot up. People expect websites to load instantly, and if yours doesn't, then they'll find one that does. Page speed is critical for two reasons:

  • It has a significant impact on the user experience of your website.
  • Google has confirmed that page speed is a ranking factor.

Not only does Google class page speed as one of its ranking factors, meaning you won't hit the top spot if your website is slow, the longer it takes for your website to load, the fewer pages Google will have time to crawl within its crawl budget. It pays, therefore, to make sure your website page speed is up to scratch.

screenshot showing website site performance report on Pagespeed insights

So what can you do to help improve the page speed of your website and ensure you're delivering content to users quickly?

Web hosting - The first thing that impacts your page speed and people often forget about is your web hosting. If the server response time if your hosting is slow, then implementing all the tips and tricks in the world will have little impact on your page speed. Make sure you opt for a quality host who can support your needs.

I can personally recommend Siteground. They utilise Google Cloud hosting (lightning fast), have terrific support and have unbelievably good uptime. You can sign up here with a discount.

Caching - Caching is the process where part of your website is remembered either by your server or the user's browser to make the loading time of your website quicker. Caching means that a browser doesn't have to reload every website element every time a user returns. There are two main types of caching:

  • Browser caching is done by the user's browser and saves files such as javascript and fonts the first time a user visits a website. If they return, the browser won't need to download these again, and the load time will be faster.
  • Server-side caching operates within the server and allows the server to save and present the results of common actions. A server can predict that the results of certain actions on a website will be the same each time, and rather than downloading images, content and files every time the action is undertaken, it will instead present the saved files to a user. The end content is no different, but the time it takes to present it is.

Third-party scripts - Limiting the number of third-party scripts that you run on your website can help to speed up its load time. Third-party scripts include WordPress plugins, chat widgets, comment services and scripts providing analytics or remarketing services.

If you want a fast website, and we're guessing you do, then you don't need to get rid of every single third-party script that you're running on your website. Instead, you should:

  • Limit the number of third party scripts to only the essentials. Especially with WordPress plugins, it can be easy to install one only to never really use its features, yet it's still running and slowing down the load time of your website. Try to stick to only the ones that make your website better and your life easier.
  • Try to delay the activation of third party scripts if possible. Elements such as commenting services and chat widgets can be activated after a few seconds or only when users make their first action/scroll down the page. This will help the initial load time of your website considerably.

It's a good idea to check your plugins to make sure there isn't any overlap either. There are often multiple plugins for any one task, and you may find you've got three different plugins installed, all claiming to do the same thing. Dropping this down to just the one you need will help speed up your website's load time.

Content Distribution Network (CDN) - Content Distribution Networks (CDN) are servers used to help deliver website content to users. Copies of your website are stored on a CDN, usually in various geographical locations, allowing users to have easier and faster access to your website. CDN's help to minimise the website's loading time by reducing the physical distance between the server and the user, ensuring that users worldwide access the same high-quality content at the same speed.

Image showing how a CDN works to speed up your website
Credit - GTMetrix

Redirects - If you've ever deleted or moved pages, then the likelihood is you'll have redirects running in some capacity on your website. They're also a great way to fix broken links, which can have a negative impact on your overall SEO success. However, having too many redirects can lead to additional HTTPS requests, which will slow down the speed of your website, especially on mobile devices.

Ideally, it would help if you kept your redirects to a minimum. Google has even advised against using them at all, but it's almost impossible not to if you've ever re-structured or removed content. Make sure all of your redirects are there for a purpose, and if any can be removed, do so.

Optimise images - One of the most common things that can slow down your website is your images. Large image files can often take forever to load, slowing down the performance of your whole website in the process. If you optimise your images, though, ensuring they aren't too big, you should notice a difference. The main ways you can optimise your photos include:

  • Resize your images - Not resizing images is one of the most common mistakes regarding page speed. Before you upload your pictures to your website, use a photo editor to resize them. Use your website width as guidance to ensure they aren't too big. For instance, if your blog content area width is 900px, don't upload an image that has a width of 2000px; it will be far too big and will take an eternity to load.
  • Choose the correct file type - There is more than one image file type, and making sure you use the right one can have a significant impact on both the quality of your images and the size of the file, which in turn will impact the time it takes for them to load on your website. There are four main image file types: JPEG, PNG, GIF and SVG. You should use each of the file types for different purposes:

JPEG - Images

PNG - Line drawings or images that contain text

GIF - Animated Images

SVG - Logos or simple illustrations

  • Image compression - Image compression helps reduce the size of images by removing unnecessary image data without impacting the quality of the picture. Compression doesn't affect the physical dimensions of an image; instead, it alters the 'weight' of the image by removing data. Compressing your images can help them load faster and allow your website to take up less space on your web host. You can compress your images manually yourself, or if your website operates on WordPress, various plugins will do it automatically.
  • Lazy Loading - Lazy loading is a technique that means not all of the content on your web page will load straight away. Instead, the critical information and content will load first, with the rest loading when required. When it comes to images, it means that only the images a user can see will load initially; then, as the user scrolls and navigates around the page, the rest will load as required. Lazy loading is a good technique for speeding up the load time of your web pages as there's often the chance that you're loading up content the user will never see. Not loading images until a user has reached that section of the page and not before ensures you're not wasting valuable power and time loading unnecessary content.

You can check your page load speed for yourself by using a tool such as Google Page Speed Insights, which will measure your page speed and highlight the most common page speed issues.

Image Alt Text 

Image alt text or alternative text describes an image that sits within the HTML of your webpage. Image alt text, also known as alt tags or alt attributes, is essential for two key reasons:

  • Improves the user experience and accessibility of your website
  • Improves image SEO

User experience - Alt texts original purpose was to describe images to users with visual impairments, helping make websites more accessible. Users who struggle to view images for whatever reason will often use a special screen reader, which will use the image alt text to describe the image to the user.

Having a well written and accurate alt text, therefore, helps improve the website's user experience and ensures that the content on your website is accessible to everyone. Alt-text is also displayed in place of an image if a browser cannot load an image or a user has selected not to load images when visiting a website.

Image SEO - Alt text can also be used as an SEO tool. Google and other search engines struggle to "read" images in the same way that humans do. Therefore, they also rely on the alt text to help them fully understand what the image is and its relevance to the content and targeted keywords. Without alt-text, Google risks misunderstanding the context of the image within the broader content on the web page.

Alt text can also help your images to rank in Google image search results. Alt text that is optimised for relevant keywords can act as a ranking signal to Google. If your images appear in search results, this, in turn, will help direct traffic to your website. The more thoroughly you describe your content to Google, the more information it has to rank your web page accordingly.

So how can you write image alt text to ensure it signals to Google what you want it to? The first thing to remember is that alt text has a dual purpose, and you're writing for two audiences. Whilst you want it to be optimised for your keywords for SEO purposes, you must ensure it accurately describes the image for users who need it. To meet the needs of both users and Google, you need to:

Describe the image - The key thing to think about when writing your alt text is to describe the picture accurately. Don't overcomplicate things, simply describe what the image shows in an accurate and easy to understand manner. Also, remember that if the image includes text of any kind, you should feature this within the alt text.

When writing your alt text, you need to describe the whole image. For example, if the image is of a child eating ice cream, then say that, don't just describe it as a photo of ice cream. 

Keep it short - Whilst your alt text needs to be descriptive and specific, it also needs to be short and concise. Try to keep your alt text to just a few words. When users view your website with the help of a screen reader, they don't want to sit through lengthy descriptions of a single image, especially if the image isn't even the main part of the content. Many screen readers and browsers will also only read the first 125 characters of an alt text so bear this in mind when writing yours.

Use your keywords - If possible, try and feature your keyword in your alt text but only do so if it's relevant. Your alt text is a great place to use your keyword, as Google will use the alt text when crawling and indexing your images. Your priority should be accurately describing the picture though, if it has absolutely nothing to do with your keyword, then don't add it just for the sake of it. This could end up doing more harm than good.

And what should you avoid when writing your image alt text?

Keyword stuffing - Whilst one mention of your keyword, when relevant, can work wonders for your image SEO, stuffing the alt text full of keywords will have the opposite effect. If Google thinks your alt text appears unnatural or spammy, it won't rank your images in search results, and it could have an impact on the ranking of the overall web page. Similarly, an unnatural or keyword-stuffed alt text will ruin the user experience for those who rely on alt texts to access your content.

Use phrases like "this is a picture of" - Both Google and screen readers already know that your alt text is describing an image, so you don't need to tell it again. Phrases such as "an image of" or "this picture shows" will waste valuable characters. Instead, get straight to the description. In some instances, it pays to describe the type of images such as graphs or illustrations.

Vague descriptions - When writing your alt text, you can't presume that users know anything about the image or its features. One of the most common mistakes people make when writing their alt text is using phrases like "company logo" wherever your logo features. This is undescriptive and offers no information or value to either Google or the user.

Forgetting to update your alt text - Often, once they've written their alt text, people will forget ever to go back and check on it. Whilst this doesn't matter so much if your images stay the same if you undertake a re-brand or update your banner ads, not updating your alt text risks you giving users and Google out of date information.

You don't always need to use alt texts on your images. There are a few exceptions where adding alt text is an unnecessary step:

  • Images for illustration only. Often websites will include images as a way of breaking up the text for aesthetic purposes. These images will typically offer no information or value to the user. Whilst you can still add alt text to them, it won't necessarily provide any added value.
  • Descriptive captions. Sometimes the caption or the text immediately before or after an image will already describe the image. In this case, you don't always need to add the same description to the alt text.

Meta Descriptions and Title Tags 

Meta descriptions and title tags are the content that actually appears in search results. When a user is presented with the SERPs after making a search query, they will face a list of web page options. The title of each result is the title tag, whilst the meta description is the short description of the web page content that appears underneath the title.

They're both a great way of telling Google exactly what the content on your web page is about, which will help Google to determine its relevance to the search query. However, the key function of meta descriptions and title tags is to help increase the click-through rate and the number of visitors to your website. Your title tag and meta description directly tell the user about the content on your web page and should help to encourage them to choose your listing from the search results.

A well-written meta description and title tag are crucial if you want to catch users' attention and convince them that your web page features the content they're looking for. Ranking in results is excellent, but you need users to choose your listing and visit your website for them to convert.

Google search showing meta descriptions

So how can you write a great meta description and title tag that will work?

Include your target keyword - Title tags and meta descriptions are a great place to put your target keyword. Both elements are used to tell Google and users what the content on your page is about, so it shouldn't come as much surprise that your keyword should be in there. 

Make sure it's the right length - Google has a limit on the size of both title tags and meta descriptions, so you need to make sure that you're within the count. If you go over, then Google will simply cut the end off, likely impacting how well the title tag or meta description performs. The length limits are based around pixels rather than characters, with Google limiting title tags to 600px and meta descriptions to 960px.

Front-load your keyword - One of the key things your title tag and meta description need to grab users' attention. Placing your keyword at the start of both is a great way to immediately highlight the relevance of your content to the search query. Having your keyword at the beginning also means that should you accidentally make it too long and Google cuts off the end, at least your target keyword will still be there.

Write naturally - Title tags and meta descriptions are relatively unique in the SEO world in that they need to cater to both search engines and the end-user. It can be easy to fall into the trap of optimising them for search engines but making them sound unnatural and Sammy. Write in a way that will catch the user's attention and inform them about your content, don't alienate them before they've even clicked through to your website.

Make sure it's accurate - The most important thing to remember when writing your title tags and meta descriptions is that they need to be accurate. Whatever you write should be a valid and relevant description of the user's content on the web page.

If a user clicks on your web page based on the information presented to them in the SERPs only to find that the content on your web page isn't what they're looking for, they'll bounce straight back off, adding to your bounce rate and indicating to Google that your content shouldn't be ranked for that search term.

Grab attention - You can use your title tags and meta descriptions to help convince users to click on your website instead of one of your competitors; therefore, you need to think about what will make you stand out from the competition. What makes your content unique and the best? Try to avoid using all capital letters and too much punctuation, though.

And what should you not do when writing your meta description and title tag?

Don't make it too short or too long - As I've already said, Google will limit the length of your meta description and title tag, so don't make them too long; otherwise, you risk losing some of the information. Similarly, though don't make them too short. You need to make sure they both provide enough information about the page to help both Google and the end-user to understand what your content is about.

Don't include jargon - Keep your title tag and meta description simple. Don't be tempted to fill it with jargon or over-complicated words and phrases. You want to encourage users to click through to your website by appearing natural and approachable.

Don't duplicate - Even if the content on some of your pages is super similar, don't be tempted to duplicate your title tags and meta descriptions. Each page needs its own unique one. Duplicate tags and descriptions will confuse Google, and it won't know which page it should rank for the search term, meaning neither will end up appearing in results.

It's worth noting that sometimes you can put a load of time and effort into your title tags and meta descriptions only for Google to go and rewrite them. Google will only rewrite them if, to be blunt, it thinks the original one is rubbish. If the search engine doesn't think the title tag or meta description is an accurate reflection of the content on the page, or if the quality is just not up to scratch, then it will rewrite them to something it thinks is better. If Google rewrites your tags, you can always return them, implementing some of these tips to help create a title tag that Google will approve of.

Featured Snippets

Featured snippets appear above the first results in Google's SERPs and are sometimes known as "position zero". Featured snippets aim to directly answer the question the user has made in their original search query.

For example, if you wanted to find out why humans yawn (and who wouldn't?!), you can see the featured snippet at the very top of the page that answers the question for you. Google has deemed this to be the very best answer to this question on the internet.

Image showing rich snippets

The page that appears as the featured snippet often doesn't rank in the number 1 spot. Often they will be down in second or third place. Featured snippets, therefore, allow you to effectively outrank your competitors even if they have the top spot in search results.

Google will usually include one of three main types of featured snippets in search results:

  • Paragraphs in answer to who/what/where/when/why/how questions.
  • Lists often for queries looking for step by step instructions, e.g. recipes.
  • Tables used for data presentation or comparisons.

Featured snippets effectively give you more exposure in Google's search results, which should hopefully result in an increase in traffic to your website. The best chance you have of appearing in a featured snippet within Google's results is if your webpage already ranks in the top ten or the first page of Google results for the search query.

How can you get a featured snippet in Google results?

Look for search terms with a featured snippet - Due to the nature of featured snippets, the search queries that usually prompt them are those that feature a long-tail keyword as opposed to a primary, singular search term. Search queries that are a question or whose intent is informational are the most likely search queries to include a featured snippet in their results. Most keyword research tools will include a feature that lets you see if a particular target keyword currently includes a featured snippet in its SERPs. 

Start by answering the question - The key to featuring in a featured snippet is to answer the question the user input into the search engine. Make sure your web page has a clear and concise answer to the question that gives the user as much information as required. For the best chance of appearing in a featured snippet, try to answer the question at the very start of your content before going on to add more additional context and information.

Take a look at your competitors - It's the tip that keeps on popping up, and whilst we're certainly not suggesting you outright copy your competition, if something is working for them and helping them to rank well, then there's a good chance you can make it work for you too.

Take a look at the search term you're targeting and see what the existing featured snippet is. Analyse the whole webpage, taking into account page layout, content length, image placement and the type of snippet used. You can then use this research to help form your content.

Stick to the word count - Google will choose which part of your content it uses within the featured snippet. Unfortunately, you can't earmark a specific section to be featured. Most featured snippets are around 40-50 words, so you can ensure that you answer the question within this word count.

We're not suggesting you simply make your content one paragraph long (in fact, Google tends to prefer longer-form content) but instead, you should answer the question briefly in one section before going on to elaborate further in the article. Use subheadings to help direct Google to the part of your content that directly answers the question.

It's almost impossible to promise that you'll land yourself a featured snippet, but by implementing these tips, you're putting yourself in the best possible position to do so. Not only that, but by making your content as relevant to the question as possible, you're giving Google even more reason to rank your web page well in its search results.

User Experience 

Pretty much everything I've covered so far in this guide comes back to one thing; user experience.

Google is putting more emphasis than ever before on the quality of the user experience that a webpage offers and is constantly updating its algorithm with user experience in mind. Put simply, if Google thinks your website is poor or the user experience is bad, then it will never rank you in its results no matter how relevant, or high-quality your content may be.

user experience image

Google will rank pages that offer high-quality, relevant content presented in a way that users can easily navigate and explore. Combine all of the elements we've talked you through so far, and you'll be well on your way to ensuring the overall user experience of your website is second to none. If a user enjoys visiting and using your website, they are less likely to bounce off it and much more likely to both convert and return.

User experience and SEO go hand in hand. They both share the common goal of presenting users with the content they're looking for. SEO will direct the user to the content they're looking for, whilst user experience will provide them with the actual content and online environment they need.

There are various things, in addition to the elements already discussed, that you can do to help improve the user experience of your website, such as:

Simplify navigation - Users need to be able to move around your website quickly. Make sure you have a clear navigational structure and menus that are laid out to best help users find the pages and content they are looking for. Make life easier for your website visitors, not harder.

Invest in a responsive design - There's no excuse not to have a website that works on all devices in today's age. With more and more people using mobile devices to search the internet, it's crucial that your website can adapt to whichever device a user is using. Think about fonts, navigation and pop-ups that may work on a desktop that wouldn't convert well on a mobile screen.

Make use of different layout options - Think about how you present your content to the user. Nobody wants to be faced with pages of endless content. Make use of all of the different layout options your design offers you, such as headings, bullet points, images, video and internal links. Make visiting your website and absorbing your content an enjoyable experience for users.

If you want to stand any chance of ranking in Google's results, you need to ensure your user experience aligns with your SEO strategy. Almost every SEO tactic will have an impact on the user experience of your website in some way.

Here's Google's video on the foundations of User Experience:

Section 6 - Link Building / Acquisition

 When you think about SEO, you probably think of backlinks and link building. A cornerstone of SEO, here we'll explain everything you need to know about building the right kind of backlinks to your website.

What is a backlink?

A backlink is when a page on one website links to a page on another website. If you're on the receiving end of the link, then that link is a backlink to your website.

Once upon a time, backlinks (along with keywords) were pretty much all that SEO was about. SEO experts and marketers spent their time building as many backlinks to their website as possible to climb up Google's rankings.

Whilst we know that today Google takes a lot more into account when ranking a website than just how many backlinks it has, they're still an incredibly important ranking factor.

Quality backlinks tell Google that your content is worth directing users to. If another, high-quality, authoritative website has decided to direct its visitors to your content, then Google can presume that it must be relevant and trustworthy. A backlink is like a seal of approval for your content.

backlinks on a website

Backlinks also help Google to crawl the internet. The search engines crawlers and bots will use links to move from one website to another, finding new and updated content to index.

When a website links to another, that link passes link equity or link juice. Depending on how authoritative the original linking page is, it will pass some of its authority to the webpage it's linking to.

Get a FREE trial of the SEMRush Backlink Tool.

Google's PageRank algorithm helps it assess the quality of backlinks pointing to a web page, thus helping Google rank the web page in search results. Three key factors impact the PageRank that Google gives a web page:

  • The number of backlinks a web page has pointed to it.
  • The number of links on the original linking page (the "link juice" of that page will be distributed amongst all of the links it features).
  • The PageRank of the original linking page.

The different types of links

There are a few different types of links that you'll need to get your head around if you want to start building up a solid backlink profile for your website.

Internal link - An internal link is a link from one webpage on the same domain to another. This is when you link from one of your web pages to another. 

External link - An external link is a link from your website to another external website. 

Nofollow link - Nofollow links don't pass any authority from one web page to another. A piece of code, rel=" nofollow", is added to the HTML of a link, which stops any authority from being passed between websites. Whilst Nofollow links don't give power; they still have other benefits such as directing traffic to your website and adding diversity to your backlink profile.

Nofollow links can be used in various ways, including in comments to stop link spam and in affiliate and sponsored posts when you don't want to risk violating Google's rules on buying backlinks (more on that later).

Standard link - A standard link, sometimes known as a dofollow or follow link, is a link to another web page that does pass authority or "link juice" to the page it's linking to. 

Building a link profile 

Your link profile is all of the links that point to your website. The better your link profile, the more authoritative your website will be deemed to be, and the better Google will rank it in search results.

Your link profile should be made up of several high-quality backlinks. It's important to not sacrifice the quality of your link profile just for the quantity. Google will judge the quality of the links pointing to your website, and if they all appear spammy or low-quality, it will impact your overall SEO strategy.

Below is an image of link data in SEMRush from a site that's continually building its link profile.

Showing link growth over time via SEMRush

Google also looks for a diverse link profile. It would be best to build up links from a number of different websites, with different PageRanks, and a mixture of standard and nofollow links using various relevant and natural anchor texts.

What is anchor text?

Anchor text is the part of the link that appears in the content. It's the visible, clickable part that will direct users to the new page.

Anchor text helps tell both users and Google's crawlers what the content on the linked page is about. This allows users to decide if they want to follow the link and visit the web page and helps Google's crawlers to judge how relevant the content on the page is.

Below is a snapshot of an anchor text profile for a company

image showing anchor text results

There are various types of anchor text which you can use when linking to other websites and building your backlink profile.

  • Generic - This is usually a call to action and relies on surrounding text to provide context for the content on the linked page, such as "click here" or "read more".
  • Branded - Branded anchor texts include the brand name of the page you are linking to, e.g. "Amazon".
  • Exact match - Exact match anchor text is when the anchor text for the link is the same keyword that the linked page is targeting, for example, "camping equipment".
  • Partial match - This is where the anchor text contains the target keyword along with other words, e.g. "best place to buy camping equipment".
  • Related - This is when the anchor text uses a variation of the target keyword, for instance, "waterproof tents and sleeping bags" when targeting "camping equipment".
  • Naked URL - Instead of using a keyword or phrase, sometimes the anchor text will simply be the URL of the page it links to.
  • Brand & Keyword - This is when the anchor text uses both the brand and the target keyword, for example, "Camping equipment Amazon".
  • Long-tail - These are similar to partial match anchor texts; however, they are longer, e.g. "the best places to buy waterproof camping equipment in the UK".

The more links you have pointing to your webpage that features an anchor text relevant to your content and the keyword you're targeting, the more likely it is that you'll rank well for that term. Don't be tempted to stuff all of the anchor texts that point to your web page with keywords, though. Google will notice and penalise you accordingly.

Different Link building strategies

So now you know why backlinks are so important, how can you build them? Backlinks are a tricky SEO feature; they have some of the most significant impacts on your rankings, yet they're not something you have that much control over. After all, you can't force another website to link to yours. There are, however, a few different strategies you can implement to help build up your backlink profile.

Guest posting - One of the most popular link building strategies is guest posting on other websites. Guest posting is the process of producing content for another website in the form of a guest post. You will be credited as the author of the content, including a link to your website. Guest posting is mutually beneficial as the website you're writing forgets a free piece of content, and you get a backlink to your site. Everyone's a winner.

Guest posting is also particularly good as it allows you to control the link and anchor text the content features. You can ensure the piece links to the page you want it to using the anchor text to best benefit your SEO strategy.

Finding websites that will accept guest posts, however, can be tricky. The best option is to Google your niche (e.g. SEO) plus phrases such as "write for us" and "submit a guest post". If Google is doing its job correctly, it will hopefully bring up results of websites that create content around your niche, in this case, SEO and who accept guest posts.

guest posting opportunities by searching on Google

Often websites that accept guest posts will have lists of criteria for the posts they accept. This can include anything from word counts to the tone of voice, post format and image sourcing. It would be best if you were willing to meet all of their criteria to stand a chance of your guest post being accepted.

Create linkable assets - Creating content that people want to link to is the most natural way to build up your backlink profile. If you have content on your website that's informative, high-quality and unique, then people are more likely to link to it from their website.

Although technically, any kind of content could be linkable, providing it's relevant, try to think outside the box and create content that isn't already out there. People will be much more likely to link to something that stands out from the crowd rather than a piece of content that's already been done 100 times over.

Particularly linkable content includes:

  • eBooks and infographics (I particularly love this infographic on the Global Carbon Budget)
  • Downloadable guides
  • Extensive guides that cover a topic in detail (like this very SEO guide!)
  • Content that includes unique insights or data

Once you've created your content, make sure to keep sharing it on social media and in your email marketing and send it directly to key industry contacts and websites that you think would be interested in linking to it. How can you expect anyone to link to your content if they don't know it exists?!

Check out your competitors - Taking a look at your competitor's backlink profile is always a good idea. You can use backlink analysis tools that will tell you all of the pages linking to your chosen competitor. You can then go through the list and see if you think any would be willing to link to you as well or even instead.

Run a free backlink audit on your competitors

This is where it comes in handy to have already created high-quality, linkable content. By making sure it's better than what your competitors are creating, you can send it to your target websites and ask if they would be willing to link to your content instead. After all, if you don't ask, you don't get!

Broken link building - This one can take a little more time and effort but can be highly effective at building quality backlinks. Broken link building involves finding a relevant broken link on a website (aka a link that points to a page that the user can no longer access), creating content similar to the original resource the link was pointing to and then asking the post author to swap out their broken link for a link to your content instead. Nobody wants broken links on their website, so often, people will be happy to switch out the links, providing your content is relevant and of the highest quality.

Remember, once you've started to build up an extensive and quality backlink profile, you can begin distributing some of the "link juice" your pages are gaining. If you've managed to get high authority backlinks to one of your pages, it makes sense to add some internal links from this page to help boost some of your other, relevant content too.

Link building strategies to avoid 

Whilst link building can be one of the most beneficial aspects of your SEO strategy; it's certainly not without risk. Building bad backlinks or using dodgy tactics that try to con Google's algorithms can end up causing more harm than good to your search rankings.

So what should you aim to avoid when it comes to building up your backlink profile?

Buying links - Google couldn't be more transparent on its stance about paying for links. Don't. Buying backlinks breaches Google's guidelines and, as such, is what we call a "black hat" SEO tactic.

It can be easy to see why buying links can be so appealing. It's a quick way to build up tens of hundreds of links to your website with minimum effort required. However, if Google figures out what you're up to and realises that you're buying links, the consequences for your website can be enormous.

Do not buy backlinks

Most websites that are penalised by Google will lose their place in the rankings for all and any keyword for six months or more. Many websites never fully recover their ranking positions after they've been penalised by Google, suggesting even one penalty is enough to mark you forever.

Google views backlinks as a green light for your website. If a website is linking to you, it's endorsing your content; therefore, if Google thinks you've bought the link, it can no longer trust that endorsement.

There are ways around Google's stance on buying backlinks; after all, paying for a handful of high-quality links can have a significant impact on your rankings. It's crucial to balance the potential outcome against the risks before you make a decision.

Directory links - Directories are almost like online Yellow Pages, featuring lists of links to various websites and web pages. They will often be broken down into categories and will transfer "link juice" to the pages they're linking to.

Back in the early days of SEO (god, I'm old!), experts and webmasters cottoned on to how beneficial directories could be and started setting them up for the sole purpose of providing backlinks to websites rather than focusing on the end-users needs.

However, thanks to Google's algorithm updates, the search engine soon got savvy to directories, and now spammy link directories are considered another black hat tactic. Websites with backlinks from dodgy directories will find themselves penalised by Google, so make sure you avoid these at all costs. 

Blog comments - Blog commenting was once one of the most used link building tactics. It requires you to comment on blog posts on other websites and include a link back to your website.

Once upon a time, webmasters and bloggers would spend hours commenting on blog posts with comments such as "check out my content here: [link] "... you can see how you'd quickly become annoyed if you were the owner of the blog. Therefore many websites will have made any blog comment links no-follow, meaning they'll pass no authority over to the linked web page.

Google also pretty much always ignores links in blog comments meaning they'll have zero impact on your search rankings and will instead take up a lot of time and effort for no results.

The difference between a good backlink and a bad one 

Not all backlinks are equal, nor will they all offer your website the same value. With that in mind, you must think carefully about the type of link you're building. It would be best if you were aiming for good quality backlinks as opposed to bad ones. So what's the difference?

Characteristics of a good backlink

Relevant - Backlinks should always be relevant and should come from websites and web pages where the content is similar to the page on your website that the link is directed to.

For example, if your page features information about buying property and you have one link from an estate agents website and another link from a fashion website, the estate agents link will offer you more value.

When building links, it's essential to consider the content on the website where the link will be placed and not just the "link juice" they can pass to you. 

Authority - The more authoritative the linking page is the more value or "link juice" the link will pass to your web page. Two of the primary metrics to note when it comes to determining the web pages that make up your backlink profile are Domain Authority and PageRank.

Page position - A backlink placed near the top of a page or at the beginning of a piece of content is often much more valuable than one that appears at the end. This is down to two reasons; firstly, users are much more likely to click through to a new link that appears closer to the start than they are one at the end, not least because there's no guarantee they'll even get far enough to see the link before they've moved on.

Secondly, Google gives more weight to links that are placed in a prominent position on the page (e.g. at the start of the content) as well as estimating the probability that someone will click on the link to determine the amount of PageRank that the link will pass.

Unique - A backlink from a website that has never linked to you before is often more valuable than a link from one that has. Depending on the websites' quality, it is usually better to have ten links from ten different websites than having twenty links all from the same one.

If you have two backlinks pointing to your website from the same web page, Google will usually value the first link more.

Anchor text - The anchor text of the link can play a part in how valuable it is. Backlinks that feature an anchor text relevant to the content the link is pointing to are often more valuable than links with irrelevant anchor text. Google will also pay attention to the context surrounding the link to understand the context fully.

Characteristics of a bad backlink 

Spammy websites - Links from a spammy website will likely do your SEO more harm than good. While it's hard to precisely define what we mean by a spammy website, you can generally determine them as any website you wouldn't want to be associated with your business.

Irrelevant links from spammy websites such as poker or pharmaceutical sites could end up not only impacting your SEO but also tarnishing your brand's reputation. If you start receiving multiple backlinks from these kinds of sites, Google will undoubtedly penalise you, even if you've had absolutely nothing to do with building them.

You can use a backlink tool to assess all of the links you have pointing to your site, and whilst one or two spammy links are unlikely to have too much impact, if you notice multiple backlinks that are a cause for concern, you can use the disavow tool in Google Search Console to request the removal of the link.

Press releases - Some brands will use their PR strategy to help build their backlink profile by filling press releases with links to their website in the hope that news sites will upload the releases, creating multiple new backlinks.

Whilst one or two links in a press release can be a savvy way of directing traffic to your website, Google has previously announced that they don't like press releases that are full of backlinks, and when created, these links will provide considerably less value.

SEO is a long game, and you need to be patient. Sending out press release after press release full of backlinks in the hope that they'll be uploaded to news sites and boost your backlink profile isn't going to cut it.

Irrelevant - Irrelevant backlinks can start to confuse both users and search engines. If you have multiple backlinks pointing to your web page from websites that have nothing to do with your industry or using an anchor text that is irrelevant to the content, then you're going to confuse Google. The search engines crawlers and bots will find it harder to understand what the content on your page is about, and you may find that your web page begins to fall in the rankings for the keywords you're actually targeting.

Whilst you can't always control who links to your website, one thing you can do is ensure that all of the content you create is relevant to your brand. That way, you reduce the chance of a completely unrelated website linking to a piece of your content.

Low domain trust score - A domain trust score is calculated by judging the quality of the backlinks that point to a website. If a website with a low domain trust score, aka one with spammy links pointing to it, links to your website, this can impact your website's SEO and trust score.

If Google sees that a website that has potentially used dodgy link building tactics to boost its backlink profile has linked to your website, the search engine won't place any value on the link it's directing to your web page.

Link schemes/Link mills - A link scheme is where a website has received a link in return for money or other resources. If Google thinks you have built up multiple, low-quality links by using a link scheme, then you'll be penalised.

Google has honed its algorithm over many years to ensure people can't manipulate it. The search engine wants to ensure that the very best content gets the top ranking position and not just the website that has bought the most backlinks.

Whilst there's no doubt that Google takes a harsh view on anyone or anything that tries to manipulate its algorithm, that doesn't mean you shouldn't work on a link building strategy that's natural and relevant.

The most important thing to remember when building up your backlink profile is that you need your links to be relevant and high-quality. Also, try not to build too many links at any one time; you don't want Google to mistakenly think you've gone on a mad link buying spree.

There will always be plenty of people and "experts" who will claim to offer you tens of hundreds of backlinks for a fee but make sure you complete your due diligence and don't be fooled into paying for low-quality backlinks, which could, at best, impact your broader SEO strategy and at worst, result in being penalised by Google which may be almost impossible to come back from.

Section 7 - Analytics

 Now you understand how you can improve your SEO you need to get to grips with how to track and measure your results. In this final section let’s explore analytics and the data analysis tools every website should be using.

Measuring your success

It’s all well and good transforming your SEO strategy and implementing various techniques to help you fly up the rankings but if you aren’t tracking your results how will you ever know what’s working and what’s not?

google analytics

Keeping track of your data and analytics will give you essential knowledge on key areas, which will help you keep improving your SEO strategy. Key questions you can find the answers to with the help of your website analytics include:

  • How many visitors is my website getting?
  • What country/region are my visitors from?
  • What is my click-through rate?
  • What is my bounce rate?
  • What keywords is my website ranking for?
  • How do users interact and navigate my website?

When you measure your SEO success, you need to have an end goal in mind, which is why it's always a good idea to set yourself short-term and long-term goals that you'd like to hit. Think about what you'd like your website to achieve and how this aligns with your broader business strategy and plans. Make sure your goals and objectives are specific and can be measured accurately.

Some of the key metrics you can measure which will help you to understand what's working and how you can improve include:

Keyword ranking - One of the key metrics to keep your eye on is the search position for your target keywords. Search results can change daily, so checking regularly will help to give you a good idea of how your website is performing.

Keyword Ranking Gif SEMRUSH

Click-through-rate - It's all well and good ranking well for a search term, but you need users to select your result and click through to your website. Keep a close eye on your click-through rate as well as which search terms are providing you with the most clicks. This can help to inform your future targeting.

Conversion rate - Your conversion rate refers to how many times a user has actively converted on your website. A conversion can be anything from making a purchase, downloading a guide or signing up to your newsletter; it all depends on your goal.

Conversion rate is calculated by simply dividing the number of conversions by the number of unique visits to give you a percentage. Understanding your conversion rate can help you predict the ROI that your website and SEO strategy will deliver.

Bounce rate - A bounced session is where a user will leave your website without taking action or exploring it further. Google certainly takes bounce rate into account when ranking websites, so it's a good idea to try and keep yours down. Remember, though, it all depends on what content you're providing. For example, if you're a pub, users may click on your website to find your opening times and then leave with the information they were looking for, meaning a bounced session isn't always a bad thing.

image showing bounce rate

Time on page - Another metric you can use to help understand how your website performs is the time a user spends on a page. If users spend only 30 seconds on a piece of 3000-word cornerstone content, then that suggests you've got a problem. When analysing your time-on-page data, consider the intent of each page. For example, a user will spend much less time on a contact page than on a blog post.

Pages per visit - Pages per visit can be a valuable metric, especially if your goal is to direct users to other content and web pages within your website. Usually, you can presume that the more pages a user visits then, the better their experience as they stay on your website and not leave for another one.

Scroll depth - Scroll depth refers to how far a user scrolls down a web page and can help you ensure you're formatting your content in the best possible way. If you're placing important information at the bottom of your page and users aren't scrolling down to see it, then you can determine that you need to make some changes to how you're presenting your content. Similarly, think about why users aren't scrolling down. Are they getting all the information they need from half the page meaning the rest of your content is unnecessary?

scroll depth

Exit pages - An exit page is the page a user lands on before exiting your site. Knowing which pages directly lead to users leaving your website will allow you to uncover if you need to make any changes to the content on these pages. Whilst a high exit page rate may mean the page is poor and putting users off; it's important to remember that a user can't stay on your site forever, and once they've got the information they're looking for, they're always going to leave.

When it comes to measuring your analytics, there are three key tools that every website should be using:

  • Google Search Console
  • Google Analytics
  • Rank Tracking tools

Google Search Console

Google Search Console is a set of free tools that Google offers webmasters to track how well their website is performing in Google's search results and what they can do to improve their rankings.

Not only does Google Search Console offer you the ability to monitor how your website is performing and spot any issues, but you'll also receive email notifications every time the tools notice a new error on your website, allowing you to fix it fast without having to be constantly checking the dashboard.

To get started with Google Search Console, you'll need to create an account, add your website and verify that you're the owner. Once you're all set up and verified, Google Search Console will provide you with multiple different dashboards which will present you with detailed information on various aspects of your website's performance.

The main dashboard that you will use to monitor your website's performance is the performance report...wow, who would have thought it?!

google search console

The performance report will give you in-depth information about how your website and individual web pages are performing in Google’s search results. Here you’ll be able to see which keywords you’re ranking for and where you’re sitting within the search results. You’ll also have access to historic data for up to 16 months allowing you to easily track and compare your progress.

The Top Filter within the performance dashboard allows you to filter down your data via categories such as date and search type e.g. mobile. The four main metrics that Google Search Consoles performance report will present to you are:

  • Clicks
  • Impressions
  • Average click-through-rate
  • Average ranking position

Not only is your performance report incredibly useful for the top level insights above, you can also use it to gain deeper insight to help really boost your search performance.

Analyse performance drops - When you notice a drop in your performance you can use the search console to uncover the root of the problem. Perhaps you’ve dropped in the rankings for a certain search term or your website isn’t loading on mobile, whatever it is you can find it and sort it pronto!

Performance drops search console

Click-through-rate optimisation - You can use Google Search Console to cross-reference web pages that are ranking well for your target keywords but that have a low click-through-rate. Perhaps you need to revisit your title tag and meta description for these pages in order to help convince users to click through to your website.

Compare mobile vs desktop performance - By using the dashboards compare option you’ll be able to directly compare how you perform on mobile devices compared to desktop. Remember that Google uses the mobile version of your website to rank you but that doesn’t mean you should forget all about the performance and user experience of your desktop site.

Compare branded and non-branded searches - A handy feature within the performance report is being able to filter your results to “queries containing” allowing you to see how well you’re performing for branded searches. If you think you’re under-performing for searches featuring your brand name you can take steps to optimise your website.

Other dashboards Google Search Console offers include:

  • URL Inspection - Provides information on all of the versions of your web pages that have been indexed by Google.
  • Links - An overview of both internal and external links that point to your website.
  • Sitemaps - Here you can add new sitemaps and see all of the old versions you have previously uploaded.
  • Security Issues - This will flag up any potential security issues with your website.
  • Manual Actions - Here you will find out if you have any manual penalties from Google.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is another free tool that Google provides in order to help website owners understand how they’re performing. Google Analytics provides a lot of data and reports so it can be a little overwhelming when you first get started. In order to make use of Google Analytics you’ll need to insert a specific piece of code on your website.

Google Analytics provides various different reports that are organised into five different categories:

  • Real-time - the activity of a user as it happens in real-time.
  • Audience - This will tell you everything you could possibly need to know about your audience such as age and gender demographics, location, devices and wider interests.
  • Conversions - How your visitors are converting and the number that are.
  • Behaviour - How your visitors navigate and engage with your website.
  • Acquisitions - Where your traffic is coming from such as social media platforms, referrals or search results.
Google Analytics

When analysing the data that Google Analytics provides you with you can filter it down using metrics such as date range, device, and organic or paid referrals.

Whilst Google Analytics provides a lot of in-depth data, many website owners looking to improve their SEO strategy and results will only need to make use of a few basic reports in order to get the most out of the tool. Some of the basic information you can find out that could help to transform your online presence includes: 

Audience demographics - Google Analytics will provide you with extensive information about your audience such as their age, gender, likes and dislikes, location and searching device, all of which you can use to help ensure you’re providing them with the content they’re looking for.

Traffic sources - Understanding where your traffic comes from is key if you want to get a full picture of how your website is performing. Google Analytics allows you to see where your top referrals are coming from and how people are finding your content. 

Most visited pages - Discover which web pages are your most popular and which ones are receiving the least traffic and that may require further optimisation.

First visited page - This report will highlight which pages are the ones that users are landing on first, whether it’s from search results or other referrers.

When comparing how different pages are performing, always try to use similar pages. For example if you are comparing the bounce rate of a page make sure to compare one blog post to another or one product page to another for the most accurate results.

Rank tracking tools

Rank tracking tools, such as those provided by SEMrush or Ahrefs, will monitor how your website is performing in search engines for specific keywords and are often considerably easier to use than both Google Analytics and Google Search Console due to the reduced amount of data on offer.

Using a rank tracking tool can have many benefits to your SEO strategy such as:

  • Daily updates on your ranking positions.
  • Track your progress in specific locations.
  • Quickly notice any drop in rankings.
  • Track your competitors in order to compare your ranking progress.

Remember your SEO progress will likely differ from day to day so unless you’ve drastically plummeted in the rankings or received a penalty from Google then slight fluctuation shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern. When analysing your data always do so with context in mind and compare like-for-like metrics and pages and you’ll be able to successfully use your analytics to inform your SEO strategy moving forward.

Section 8 - Conclusion

And so just like that you’ve reached the end of this Beginners Guide to SEO. Hopefully you’ll now feel better informed and equipped with the right knowledge to take your SEO strategy to the next level.

SEO is an ever-changing landscape and is made up of multiple components, it can take time to get to grips with everything but even making the smallest changes can start to have an impact on your search rankings.

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