As an Internet marketer, I often find it amazing that people use search engines several times a day without the knowledge that the results are constantly being evaluated and ranked by their quality. The results, they just… happen.
Those .25 seconds it takes for Google to show you something useful rely on years of data collection, quality control, and extremely hard work from the creators of the resulting websites. Search engine optimization is the task of understanding that process and applying it to the content you create.
I’ve created this SEO tutorial with two goals: one, to give you an understanding of that process, and two, to give you ways to improve the way your website appears in the search results.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
I am assuming that you know what search engine optimization (SEO) is for the sake of this tutorial (if so, feel free to jump ahead), but if you don’t, here is my attempt at an SEO elevator pitch:
When you search something in Google, you see immediate results. In the meantime, Google has already evaluated nearly every single page on the Internet against an algorithm consisting of more than 200 different factors. The best scoring pages are then ranked as results for your search.
Search engine optimization is important because businesses can use this technology to create a page that ranks well for terms related to their industry. With billions of searches per day, businesses can earn more revenue purely based on their rank in the search result. Studies show that the higher your company ranks, the more people visit your site, resulting in more business for your company.
If that two minute spiel didn’t get the point across as to why anyone would desire SEO, then you might want to jump to some other resources before continuing with the tutorial:
In This Tutorial
I’m hoping you have time to read this. But honestly, there are years of continued learning involved in SEO, and you may never “know” all of it. Google is always updating its algorithm and changing the way websites rank. However, there is still a basic framework to follow in which I hope to present in a helpful way.
Each element consists of a short definition along with the needed skills to implement it. After each one, I’ll also point you in the right direction with some helpful resources in case you would like to read more.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please let me know in the comments at the very bottom! Enjoy!
The Elements of SEO
The best way to start off this SEO tutorial is to break it into pieces. As I mentioned in my elevator pitch. I won’t go over every single one, but each of these factors can be categorized into two different sections: On-Page and off-page SEO.
If you need a visual for these “elements,” Search Engine Land provides a great graphic:
Get it? Elements… Periodic table…
On-Page SEO vs. Off-Page SEO
When you look at the World Wide Web in relation to your website, you basically have two different areas: your pages and other pages (other websites).
On-page SEO consists of different things you can directly do on your own page that will affect your ranking. This can be anything from the actual content you create to the speed of your website. We’ll dive into this soon!
Off-page SEO is everything on other people’s pages that will affect your ranking. You normally don’t have much control over this and it can be a bit more difficult to optimize. Off-page SEO includes anything that might tell Google that your page is something of value. For instance, a link! Each link that goes from a different domain to one of your pages tells Google that your page is of value (usually – more on this later). There are many more factors involved that we will touch base on as well!
Good and Bad SEO
However, when it comes to anything on the Internet, there are ways people try to manipulate Google’s ranking factors. This has caused Google to consider devaluing and even penalizing certain on-page and off-page practices. Don’t worry – I’ll make sure you are well aware of those areas as we continue through the tutorial.
The Skills Required for Good SEO
There are so many different skills related to SEO. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to even think about the different areas needed to go from start to finish when it comes to creating websites and content, then optimizing it all for search. It honestly is a wide range from technical to soft skills. Don’t feel overwhelmed by this, though. The more you do it, the better you will get! Every element in the tutorial will detail the needed skills.
Let’s get down to business!
On-Page SEO Tutorial
Off-page SEO is regarded as the most difficult part of search engine optimization, and that’s because it’s always changing. However, off-page SEO may not help much if your on-page SEO isn’t in place.
As I mentioned earlier, on-page SEO relates to things on your own website. This often means you have the chance to directly improve every part of on-page SEO since you have access to your website.
Within on-page SEO, there are three groups of factors:
- Your website’s content
- Your website’s code
- Your website’s overall setup
1. The Content Itself
Most of the time, when people are looking for ways to boost their SEO, they already have a functioning website in place. What they may need is just some quality content, so that’s where we will start first!
Skills Required: Writing, Grammar, HTML
When people say “create quality content,” you might just wonder what “quality content” actually is. The best way to create quality content is to just think about who is going to read it. Would you want to read your content?
There are many ways to improve upon this, but I’ll list out some major ones for you.
- Your content should have at least 400 words on each page. This helps Google determine what the page is really about, and increases the chance that they will think it’s good stuff.
- Is the main topic of that page clear? We’ll get into keyword research soon, but being clear on what the content is about in your content is very important.
- Is the content engaging and interesting? Do not just have a huge wall of text that overwhelms readers as soon as they see it. Break up the text into paragraphs and provide helpful images or videos throughout to keep the reader interested.
- Is content updated, relevant, and fresh? Creating new content on a regular basis and updating old content will tell Google you are a worthy content creator.
- Are your pages unique? Be sure you haven’t copied anyone else’s work!
Once you have the practice of creating quality content down, you’ll need to discover the keywords that people are searching for. This isn’t always easy depending on your industry. However, we have some guides and resources that can help you find killer keywords.
- Beginner’s Guide to Keyword Research
- How to Identify Quality Keywords
- Useful tools for finding keywords: Ubersuggest or Keywordtool.io
Once you have discovered what everyone is searching for create quality content around those keywords and phrases. You’d be surprised at the kinds of things the masses search for. If you’re lucky, you can find high traffic keywords that not many other people have already tried.
You won’t show up in Google for anything if your content doesn’t contain keywords and phrases that searchers want. Similarly, Google can’t rank you for terms that you don’t write about. Many websites just need to find the right words to put on a page, and that can make the difference between no traffic, and lots of traffic.
Negative Content Factors
When creating content, you’ll want to be aware of a few things: Thin content, keyword stuffing, and advertisements.
Google doesn’t really like thin content. If your site has little to offer or is full of junk (automatically generated content, copied content, affiliate pages) you may eventually be penalized for it. Google also doesn’t like to see pages full of advertisements. This too can hurt your rankings as these things only remove value from the content for the reader. can also remove value from the page, and it looks really spammy. Avoid inserting too many instances of your keyword and keep things as natural as possible!
As long as you are creating quality content, as described above, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about! Just keep doing what you do!
Overall, your content is the number one thing. You can spend as much time and money on the rest of this tutorial, but it won’t get you anywhere if you don’t have solid content in place. Improving your content should be your first step!
2. Optimizing Content Code for SEO
This section is a bit more technical and can require some specific skills depending on how your website is set up. Mostly, all you’ll need to know is some simple HTML skills to get these elements in place.
Skills Required: HTML, Writing
When you visit a webpage, the text that appears in the tab of the current window is the page’s title. You will also see the title of a page within Google’s search results as the big blue links for each result.
The page’s HTML Title Tag is what determines this and is one of the first things Google sees. Edit your title tag to include important keywords, and to indicate what the page is about, as this is a major starting point for Google when looking at a page.
Helpful Title Tag Resources:
- How to edit title tags
- What to put in your title tags
- How to Write Title Tags For Search Engine Optimization
Meta descriptions are also an important part of your HTML, as this is what displays underneath those big blue links within the search results. Google doesn’t necessarily use this to rank a website, however it is extremely helpful for users when looking over the search results. Google will bold keywords within the descriptions, allowing your site to stand out among the other listings.
Helpful Meta Description Resources:
Headlines and Subheadings with H-Tags
This should almost be considered in the content part of your SEO efforts as it most often within the content itself. Unless your website is a static HTML website (you probably already know what these are if it is), your editor probably has settings for these. However, if you don’t know understand what the H-tags are for, you may be missing out.
Content management systems like WordPress and other editors include a font setting for headings and subheadings. H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, and H6 are all different types of headings for your content. Generally, you will see different headings and subheadings breaking up paragraphs within each page. This is actually telling Google what your content is about within each heading, so be sure to include keywords where appropriate within your H-Tags.
Your most important H-Tag is the H1, and you should really only have one per page. However, most content management systems automatically add this in for you when you title the page. In that regard, it is important to title your pages and blog posts with the appropriate keywords!
Helpful H-Tags Resources:
- How to Use Heading Tags for SEO
- How Important is an H1 Tag for SEO?
- Can a H1 Tag Improve My Website’s SEO?
Negative Content Code Factors
In the end, you only need to learn a little bit of HTML to correctly implement these features. If you don’t know any HTML at all, try a few tutorials on Codecademy. It’s actually quite fun to learn!
If you use a CMS like WordPress, there are several plugins and pre-installed features that already cover these areas. For total WordPress SEO optimization, we recommend using the Yoast SEO plugin.
3. Setting Up Your Website for SEO Success
If you haven’t fully set up your website quite yet, then this is a good section to start with. There’s always a few things to get in place first before you start making content, but don’t worry if you’ve already got one up and running. You can still evaluate and implement the following items as well!
Skills Required: HTML, PHP, Web Design
Create a Sitemap and Submit it to Google Webmaster Tools
The best way to get Google to recognize your site actually exists is to make a sitemap and submit it to their very own tool.
What’s a sitemap? It’s a special file that basically lists out all the different pages on your site! This “map” is then followed closely by Google as it crawls your site. You can easily create one using a variety of different tools. I like to use this one, but if you use WordPress you can get one set up automatically with the Yoast SEO plugin.
Once that’s done, upload the file to your site and tell Google Webmaster Tools (GWMT) where it is. Follow the screenshot below if you’re not sure how to submit a sitemap to GWMT.
If you don’t have a GWMT account, then follow this guide on how to set one up. It’ll be worth it!
The next element you may want to figure out before creating a ton of pages is how your URL structure will be set up. Generally you will want your URLs to be as short as possible, yet still containing meaningful keywords and phrases.
Again, if you use WordPress, you can easily configure this in the permalinks settings (below). Otherwise, you’ll want to strategically figure out how your site will be laid out and formed as you add new content. This may be as easy as determining if you’ll be creating several different categories of content, and forming specific folders for each type. Or it might be a little more complicated if you are running an ecommerce store with thousands of different products.
Helpful URL Structure Resources:
How does your site look on mobile? If you need to pinch and zoom at all, then you may want to think about using something to accommodate your mobile readers, whether that be a responsive theme or a separate mobile version of your site.
Google is considering incorporating this into their ranking factors. It makes sense, since they’ll want more mobile friendly sites as more searchers use the Internet on their mobile devices.
Helpful Mobile Friendliness Resources:
- Responsive Design or Mobile App: Which Does Your Website Need?
- How to Design and Build a Mobile Website
- 4 SEO Benefits of Responsive Web Design
The time it takes to load your pages can be an important ranking factor as well. Users don’t like to wait longer than 3 seconds for a page to load. Google recognized this fact and added it to their ranking algorithm. If you run an ecommerce store, long loading times can even be costing you money!
How do you know if your site is slow? Try entering it into Google PageSpeed Insights and see what it spits out. There are usually endless ways to improve your load times, and this tool will show you a few.
There are hundreds of ways to improve your page speed, but we can’t cover them all here. Instead, check out these links to learn more.
Helpful Page Speed Resources:
- Why Faster Websites Make More Money [Infographic]
- 26 Tools for Improving Your Website’s Page Speed
- 5 Tips to Boost Page Speed
- How and Why to Specify Image Dimensions for SEO
On-Page SEO Overview
So we’ve covered a lot so far. Many of these things will get drilled into your head as you continue to improve your website. It’ll become second nature to you eventually! Fortunately, many of these things won’t need much of your attention after they are set up. You’ve created a firm foundation, but this is only part of the entire picture. Keep reading to learn about off-page SEO.
Off-Page SEO Tutorial
If you’ve done everything you can for on-page SEO, beyond just creating more content, then you’ve got a firm basis to build the rest of your site on. Off-page SEO is the part of Google’s algorithm that you may not necessarily go in and freely change like you could with most of the on-page SEO elements.
If you are in an industry that has any competition at all, this may be the deciding factor that determines which sites ranks the highest. However, there is only one major focus when it comes to off-page SEO: links.
Here’s the deal: Google values a website or webpage much more if it has links from other websites pointing to it. While this may seem pretty simple, it can be a lot harder than it looks. There’s a lot more to links than you may think.
Skills Required: HTML, Writing, Communication
Not all links are equal. Google’s algorithm has gotten really smart at determining what links are worthwhile and which ones are not, so there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle.
Links are everywhere. That’s why Google has to be picky with the amount of value it gives to each one. For instance, a link within a big huge list of other links is worth much less than a single link within an 800 word blog post.
A good rule of thumb for evaluating link quality can be determined on how natural the link is. If the link is placed within a body of text that is related to that page, it is likely a natural link. If it is within a long list of other links, perhaps in a directory or long list of spammy blog comments, it probably isn’t very natural.
Anchor text is the text that you can click on to go to a linked website. If the text is related to the content within the page, that will give Google a hint as to what your page is about even before getting there. “Click here” is considered weak anchor text, while “WebFX” would be considered strong anchor text (if the link in question was pointing at our website).
Authority of the Linking Site
An addition to the quality of the link itself is the quality of the entire site that it exists within. There are lots of websites out there, so Google ranks sites like The New York Times higher than a new blog that Joe Schmo made on a whim.
There are also many factors that go into the authority of a site, such as:
- The age of the site
- The number of links pointing to it
- The domain extension of the site (.edu or .gov are better than .com and .net)
These and many other things contribute to the authority of your site as well as those that link to you.
To understand the authority of a website or page, try using the Mozbar browser extension shown below. Generally speaking, the higher the DA (domain authority), the better.
Another indication that your page is of value and authority is obviously the number of links going to it. The higher the number of quality links pointing to your page, the more worthy it is of being towards the top of the results!
But… 10,000 spam links from blog comments will never be the same as a handful of high quality links on high quality sites. The number of links you have isn’t everything.
Negative Link SEO Elements
Try not to buy a link. Yes, some people get away with this, but you don’t want to risk anything on a website you’ve been working on or want to keep around for years. If Google discovers any links that might be suspicious, then you are most likely going to be penalized pretty heavily.
Also, avoid link spam. There are ways to build thousands of links in a matter of minutes. However, it is pretty obvious that these links aren’t natural. Remember the natural link rule of thumb? Stick to that and you’ll be fine.
How to Get Links
Links are a big deal, but getting them can take some creativity. If you need some more direction on link building, we’ve got a few final resources for you.
Helpful Link Building Resources:
- What is Link Building?
- How to Build Your Very First Link
- Beginner’s Guide to Link Building
- Link Building For SEO
- Advanced Guide to Link Building
- 5 Links Every Small Business Should Have
These resources will take you beyond the SEO tutorial stages and introduce you to some valuable link building strategies!
You may never want, or need, to fully master SEO. However, I hope I gave you some direction as far as where you are and where you need to be in your current SEO strategies. Eventually, you’ll be the latest SEO expert generating all kinds of traffic from Google organic searches. Until then, good luck and have fun!
If you ever have any questions along the way, don’t hesitate to ask us! Leave a question in the comments or send us a tweet @WebFX. We would love to help you out!