As you probably know, search engine optimization is a process crucial for the success of your website. But where do you get started with understanding SEO?
Although the terms SEO basics or SEO principles get mentioned often, it can be quite a lot to wrap your head around. In this article, we’re going to cover some of the fundamental SEO principles in an effort to help you get a better grip on what SEO is all about and set out on the right path when optimizing your website.
So, without further ado, below are 5 basic SEO principles that can help you boost your search rankings and organic traffic.
1. Keyword Research and Search Engine Optimization
At the most basic level, keywords or search queries are user inputs that bring them to your website through organic search. A person searches for a term in their search engine and it comes back with a list of pages that answer their question or need. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not necessarily.
You see, certain keywords are more popular than others, either because many people are searching for them or because many websites are competing for the top spot at the search engine results page. These two sides of “keyword popularity” are usually referred to as search volume and keyword difficulty.
What is a keyword’s search volume?
The search volume for a specific keyword is the approximate number of its monthly searches. In simple terms, keyword search volume tells you how many times per month users search for that exact term or phrase. The greater the search volume for a keyword, the more traffic potential it has.
What is keyword difficulty?
Keyword difficulty is a numeric representation (usually ranging from 0 to 100) of how difficult it is to rank as the top result for a specific search query. If the competition for a keyword is tough and there’s a lot of well-optimized websites with a high domain authority ranking for that keyword, the difficulty will be high and the top of the SERP hard to attain.
Now that we understand keyword difficulty and search volume, we can move onto researching keywords.
The Art of Keyword Research
Keyword research is the process of identifying search queries that you want to try and rank for. Difficulty and search volume play a key role in the process. As you might have guessed, you want to target search queries that have a high volume and a low difficulty, making it easy to rank on the first page and transform a portion of their monthly search volume into organic traffic to your website.
There is a number of keyword research tools you can use for this purpose, both free and paid.
But how do I know what difficulty I can shoot for?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. It depends on your overall SEO, domain authority, the number of backlinks you can acquire, etc. A good rule of thumb is to compare your website to the top results on the SERP in a tool like Ahrefs. If you can realistically compete with them, you should definitely go for it.
Does this mean I should avoid very competitive keywords?
Not necessarily. If a keyword is very closely related to your industry, products, or services, you should never ignore it, even if it is very difficult to rank for. Sure, you may not want to focus on it, but you shouldn’t shy away from it either.
Although you probably won’t reach the first page for that specific query any time soon, it’s important to include it in your content. Why? Because Google needs to understand what your website is about and it does so through your content and the keywords you use.
If you’re in a competitive industry and are looking for ways to boost organic traffic to your website, look into some long-tail keywords. These often neglected somewhat longer phrases can have a decent search volume with a much lower difficulty, making them low-hanging fruit. In addition, you’ll find that most of these phrases include the more competitive, shorter queries, so you can focus on the long-tail term while also having a shot at ranking for the competitive query.
2. Title Tag and Meta Description Optimization
How to Write and Optimize Title Tags
The title tag is the headline of the page as it appears in search results. It is the first thing users see when they search for something in Google or any other search engine. As such, optimizing your title tags has two functions: to make them appealing to users and to “tell” Google what the page is about.
There are a couple of things you can do with this in mind.
First, make sure your title tag contains the focus keyword you have chosen for the page. This shows both Google and potential visitors that your content is relevant to the query. Secondly, try to make the headline compelling to the reader. It should tell the user what they can expect to find when they click on it and spark their interest. You should also include your brand name at the end to inform the reader where the link is taking them.
Finally make sure Google can display the entire title tag by limiting its length to up to 70 characters (under 600 pixels. Although Google doesn’t have a limit for title tag length and will take it into account in its entirety, title tags exceeding 600 pixels will get truncated. This basically means that the users won’t see the entire title, which can negatively affect user experience.
A good rule of thumb formula to use for your title tags:
focus keyword + secondary keyword | Brand Name
focus keyword + context – Brand Name
How to Write and Optimize Meta Descriptions
If the title tag is the first thing a user sees on the SERP, the meta description is a close second, since it is displayed right below it. Much like the former, meta descriptions give you the opportunity to convince both the search engine and the user that your page is relevant and provides value to the reader.
An optimized meta description should include your focus keyword and describe what can be found on the page, encouraging the user to visit your website.
3. High-Quality Content that Provides Value to the Reader
All the effort put into optimizing your website may not amount to much in terms of organic traffic without quality content. Whether you are creating content for your blog section, landing pages, product pages or anything else, it needs to be top-notch to make it to the first page of search results. Even more so in a competitive environment.
But what is quality content? What is it that makes an article or page well-written?
There are a couple of things a piece of quality content needs to deliver on:
- It needs to be original – Original content means that the article isn’t just a reworded piece of content found on another website or a couple of them. A quality piece of content should provide readers with new information, preferably from your own resources or the writer’s experience and a unique perspective on the topic.
- It has to provide value to the reader – Valuable content informs users in-depth on the topic. It helps them find information they are looking for, make an informed decision, or gain a better understanding of a certain subject. For this reason, the best content you can find online is written by experts or niche writers who have considerable knowledge on the matter.
- It needs to be engaging – A well-written article must hold the readers attention. If they bounce back right at the introduction, their visit will mean little and Google will pick up on that. The content needs to have a certain “flow” and keep the reader interested and wanting to find out more. This means it should be free of any kind of fluff or keyword stuffing and use an appropriate tone. Depending on the target audience, this can range from informal and witty to formal and exact.
- It has to match search intent – Search intent (or user intent) can be described as the type of result the user is hoping to get when they type in a query in the search engine. A common classification has four types of search intent: informational, navigational, commercial, and transactional.
In most cases, the intent behind the query can be guessed from the query itself. For example, a long-tail keyword beginning with “how to..”. or “what is…” certainly has an informational search intent, while queries starting with “buy…” obviously have a transactional intent.
But what about other examples that are less obvious? In most cases you can use logic to determine what the user is looking for, or take a look at the top results for the search query and see what type of content ranks best. However simple this may sound, it’s an important step both when it comes to keyword research and content creation.
4. Page Speed and User Experience
Although they are not exactly overlapping, it’s hard to separate page speed from user experience. After all, page speed is a ranking factor and a part of Core Web Vitals primarily because of UX, and understanding how it contributes to the overall impression of your website will help you understand why it affects your SEO and even your conversion rate.
Page Speed as a Ranking Factor
Google wants its users to find what they are looking for as easily and as quickly as possible and you can hardly deliver a positive user experience if your page or certain elements on it take a long time to load. The more likely outcome is a bounce-back. Google recognizes this and favors pages that load quickly when it comes to ranking.
Page Speed and Conversion Rate
Apart from affecting your rankings and bounce rate, page load time also has an effect on your conversion rate. Google’s own research data indicates that conversion rates can drop by up to 20% for each second added to a page’s load time. Why? Well, because users simply don’t have the patience to wait for a slow page to load and a poor user experience may deter some of them from converting.
So, what can keep your website from loading quickly and how do you improve page speed?
Image size can have quite an impact on your page speed. Large images take more time to load and can potentially slow down your website. While it may be tempting to go for high-quality images, the best practice is to find a balance and try to keep visuals under 100kb. Compressing and optimizing your high-quality images with one of the many tools you can find online is one way to have the best of both worlds.
If you are using WordPress or a similar CMS, you may find that there is a lot of unnecessary code or plugins slowing down your website. In this case, your best course of action is to work with a web developer to optimize your website code and make sure you are only using plugins you actually need.
Your hosting provider can impact page speed in two ways. Firstly, if the servers hosting your website are slow, you will face long load times no matter how much effort you put into optimizing your website. Secondly, the location of the servers can also play a role. Since the data needs to travel from the server to the client (the user’s device), if they are on opposite sides of the globe, this can take some time, despite the speed at which information travels.
So it may be worth to invest a bit of time and even some extra funds to find fast hosting with servers located in the country where your target audience is.
Optimizing for Mobile Devices
The number of users searching Google via smartphones is constantly increasing compared to desktop users, with 58% of global web traffic coming from mobile devices as of April 2022. Google’s answer to this trend came in the form of mobile-first indexing.
While optimizing for mobile compatibility has been an important part of search engine optimization for a long time, the introduction of mobile-first indexing made it paramount.
In essence, this means that Google will rank your website based on ranking signals (including page speed) coming from its mobile version in an effort to provide mobile users with – you guessed it – a better user experience.
5. Backlinks and Link Building
Backlinks have been one of the main ranking factors for a long time and they’re here to stay. But let’s try to explain the “why” behind this statement.
How do backlinks impact SEO?
Unlike internal links, a backlink (or inbound link) is a link pointing to your web page from another website. This tells Google (or any other search engine) that whoever linked to your content, found it valuable enough to reference it. You can think of a this as the equivalent of a website saying “I trust this source”.
While a single backlink won’t make a huge difference, much like a single person recommending a product to you probably wouldn’t sway you, multiple trustworthy websites linking to you are going to send search engines a clear signal that there is value to be found on your site, increasing your domain authority.
You can acquire backlinks in two ways:
- Naturally – by producing content others will want to link to, and
- Through link building as a part of your SEO strategy.
Not all Backlinks Have Equal Value
Sticking to the same analogy of a person recommending a product to you, we can easily understand why not all inbound links are equal. For example, if you were looking to buy your first guitar, you’d probably value the opinion of a good musician more than that of an accomplished painter.
The same applies to how Google perceives a backlink. A single link from a trustworthy, authoritative source carries more weight than a couple of links from sources that lack these properties. In this sense, we can conclude that link building should be focused on quality over quantity.
Understanding the fundamental SEO principles is the first step towards optimizing your website or becoming an SEO yourself. However, there is more to search engine optimization than the basic principles covered in this article. It’s how you apply them in the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing that makes a difference.
That being said, if there is a single takeaway from this long read, it would be this: Focus on the users and their perception of your website. Make your pages user-friendly and provide visitors with real value by understanding their search intent and delivering exceptional content. If users love your website, so will Google.