People who are just getting started with a new internet business often get that common feeling that search engine optimization is too technical while the competition in SERPs is enormous. So generally SEO isn’t worth the effort.
While it’s true that there are some niches where it’s hard to succeed, that’s not the case for many other industries. Quite often, when you look at a particular vertical, you’ll find that it’s not as saturated as you think, and competitors have a very limited understanding of SEO. So you only have to get the basics right to have immediate success.
Part of the reason is that many business owners don’t have enough time to spend on creating and implementing a good SEO strategy. So they decide to hire someone to do it for them. The inherent risk with this course of action is that when you don’t understand the basics of the work that needs to be done, you can easily get ripped off.
So, no matter whether you’re just getting started with DIY SEO or planning on hiring someone to do it for you, this guide will give you everything you need to know to succeed with generating organic traffic for your website.
We’ll go through the following vital SEO basics:
- How to figure out what your customers are searching for
- How to optimize your pages so they rank for your keywords
- How to make sure your website is accessible and convenient to both search engines and human visitors
- And finally, how to get other websites to link to your site
Keep reading to learn the best practices for each of these aspects of SEO and how to apply them to your website.
Step 1: Figure out what your target customers are searching for
While many people think of SEO as an inherently technical discipline — no matter whether you’re researching keywords, optimizing your site, or analyzing competitors to understand what they’re doing — the reality is that SEO is predominantly about understanding who your customers are and what they care about.
That doesn’t necessarily need to be done using any SEO tactics, in fact, the best way to get started with it is by talking to your clients and listening to their feedback. Here are some of the obvious places where you can start:
- Comments on your website
- Emails from customers
- Your phone/chatline
- Events where you meet with customers
Keep an eye not just on what they’re saying, but also what language they’re using. Start building a list of topics your audience is interested in and the terms they use.
To get a better idea of how that would look in practice, we’ll use an example.
Let’s say we’re working on SEO for a new hotel/bed&breakfast in Dublin, Ireland. We don’t have customers yet, so we use common sense to come up with several ways people may search online to find us:
- ‘hotels in Dublin’
- ‘hotel in Dublin’
- ‘place to stay in Dublin’
- ‘accommodation Dublin’
There are quite a few terms we can come up with, and while that’s always helpful, your primary concern at this point is not to create a super-extensive list.
Get a general idea of how people discuss your topic
My next step is to pick one of the terms I came up with and run it through Keywords Explorer in Ahrefs:
Ahrefs gives me a whole bunch of useful information on that keyword. I see that ‘hotel in Dublin’ gets a good amount of searches in the US, it’s popular in Ireland and the UK, and (most importantly) it is a part of a larger topic ‘Dublin hotels’ that gets a lot more searches.
I also get numerous suggestions for related keywords that Ahrefs presents using several keyword generation methods.
In just a few minutes with Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, I’ve managed to identify a high-volume keyword that our potential customers can use to find my website. Besides I’ve got a whole bunch of other keywords that can generate organic traffic to our website.
A free tool like Google Trends can also provide insight into how people are searching around a particular topic, but that information will be nowhere near what an advanced tool will give you. Still, our guide on using Google Trends for keyword research will definitely come in handy.
Check out the search suggestions (aka autocomplete)
Start typing a query in the search box, but don’t hit Enter. Google will immediately suggest some additional search terms that people have used:
You can repeat this by typing each letter of the alphabet:
Ahrefs will save hours of your time on this kind of research. With Keywords Explorer you’ll get an extensive list based on Google’s search suggestions. Our keyword tool will also automatically populate it with valuable metrics such as the number of searches each term gets as well as its ranking difficulty estimation (we’ll go into more detail on this in a minute):
Get some hints from the related searches
Finally, look at the related searches section (you will find it at the bottom of the search results page):
This is an important place to look at because it will give you some extremely relevant keywords you should target. For example, when we look at the related searches for ‘Dublin hotels’, we can see that people search for things like ‘cheap hotels in Dublin city center’ and ‘bed and breakfast dublin ireland’, which weren’t in our original consideration.
Based on the type of hotel we’re working on and the type of customers it will be targeting, some of these can be a great way to reach our intended audience.
How to expand your keyword list
Search suggestions and related searches will give you a pretty limited number of keyword ideas. This is the part where you can really benefit from using one of the premium keyword research tools on the market.
Ahrefs is built on a database of over 5 billion (yes, with a B) keywords. A simple check with Keywords Explorer using some of the terms I found during my initial research/brainstorming gives me over 4k(!) suggestions to work with:
When you have access to this calibre of data-backed insight, coming up with keyword ideas is no longer a challenge. You should just choose the opportunities to focus on and pursue.
Understand how your target customers are talking about your topic
Google search results can give you a lot to get started with SEO, but it’s in no way enough.
To be successful with SEO, you need to understand how people are talking about the niche you’re operating in, what problems they’re facing, what language they’re using, and so on. Use every opportunity to talk to customers and take notice of the language they’re using.
Doing it in person is great, but also very time-consuming. So here are some places where you can find the words people use while talking about your topic of interest:
Ahrefs Content Explorer
Content Explorer provides one of the quickest and most reliable methods to understand what topics are the most popular and engaging in a certain field.
Here’s what I got when I searched for ‘Ireland travel’:
From the results, I can see that travel guides are very popular. That gives me the idea that we can publish a travel guide on the site and attract visitors and social shares through it.
Social Media, Forums, and Communities
Websites with a lot of user-generated content are a great place to see how people are talking about your chosen topic. Some of the places you can visit to perform this kind of analysis include:
- Forums: there are quite a few communities where people discuss traveling. A simple search led me to the TripAdvisor Dublin Travel Forum for example.
- Quora/Reddit: Quora is probably not the first place that will come to mind when you’re looking for travel advice, but you’d be surprised by the amount of information you can find there even on this topic. Where it comes to Reddit, the old adage there’s a subReddit for everything holds true.
- Facebook/LinkedIn Groups: Make sure you’re looking in the most relevant place — I won’t be using LinkedIn for my research, but there are plenty of groups on Facebook where I can find a lot of information.
We have a really extensive resource on how to use these communities to generate keyword ideas.
Literally anywhere else
Any website or social network with a large number of visitors and user-generated content can serve as a source of inspiration and keyword ideas.
Podcasts are hugely popular, which means the people that produce them spend considerable time researching topics:
On Amazon you can search for your field of interest and see what books/products are selling well — this serves as a validation that people are interested in this particular topic.
Neil Patel has a great idea on how to get even more information out of this. Check out the table of contents of the book and especially the chapter titles for more keyword ideas:
Combining all these methods should give you an extensive list of search terms (or keywords) that you can target with the content on your website.
However, some keywords (especially in a field that’s as competitive as travel) get a lot of searches but are very hard to place well for. Others would be easy to rank for but hardly get any searches. Understanding what keywords to target with your pages and your content is the essential step in achieving SEO success.
Understand the metrics
In keyword research, there are two metrics of the utmost importance:
- search volume (representing how many times people search for a certain term) and
- keyword difficulty (showing how easy or hard it would be to appear on the first page of search results for that term).
I see way too many SEO experts who still proclaim Google Keyword Planner as a viable tool for predicting keyword traffic. The reality is — it’s NOT a dependable place for this kind of data.
That’s why it’s important to use an advanced tool, which can give you reliable data on keyword search volumes:
The same applies to keyword difficulty. Keyword Planner uses the metric aimed at paid advertising, i.e. how much competition there is for the paid positions for a given term.
Keyword Difficulty in Ahrefs makes it extremely simple to understand the chances of ranking in the top 10 search results by estimating how many domains you need to link to a page with your content (more on the topic of backlinking further in this post).
Understand the intent of each keyword you’re targeting
When you start delving deeper into SEO and keyword research, you’ll realize there are 3 types of searches people make:
- Navigational: They’re looking for a specific website, e.g. ‘Dublin airport’
- Informational: They’re looking to learn more on a specific topic, e.g. ‘things to do in Dublin’
- Transactional: They’re looking to purchase a specific product/service, e.g. ‘book hotel in Dublin’
Naturally, searches with a high level of commercial interest are more valuable from a business point of view, since the people doing them are much closer to the point of purchase and thus more likely to spend money if they land on your site.
There’s a difference in the intent even between transactional terms. Here’s an example. Which search query is closer to conversion: ‘last minute hotel deals Dublin’ or ‘Dublin hotels’?
To understand the intent behind the search term, make sure you thoroughly review what pages rank for it. Since Google’s main preoccupation is to satisfy its users, the algorithm keeps a close eye on the behavior of people searching for a particular term and tries to offer results that will satisfy the intent of their search. Thus, a search for ‘Dublin guide’ will show a bunch of informational results from Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor:
But once I type ‘Dublin accommodation’ in the search box, it’s a whole different story — the results page is dominated by offers for hotels and b&b’s:
Learn professional keyword research
Keyword research is a huge area of SEO and it can be very intimidating to someone who’s just getting started. However, understanding the basic concepts and metrics is a must for every website owner who wants to drive organic traffic.
To dive deeper into professional keyword research, check out our extensive guide on the topic.
After you figure out the keyword(s) you want to rank for and what searchers are expecting to see when they type them into Google, you also need to designate what page on your site is going to rank for each keyword. Create a map (in a spreadsheet or another file) that ties each keyword in your plan to a page on your site.
Next, you have to make sure this page is structured in a way that search engines understand what topic (i.e. search term) it is targeted at.
Step 2: Creating pages optimized for search
Keyword research is just the first step towards attracting search traffic to your website.
However, you also need to make sure your pages are structured well in order to rank for the keywords you selected and satisfy those who’re searching.
Perform basic on-page optimization
On-page optimization is the next essential step in your basic SEO strategy. Even if you find the most profitable keywords and have the best content for them, your effort would be wasted if your pages are not optimized for search engines.
Before I get into the details of on-page optimization, let’s clear up what tools you need to perform it. There are many ways to implement the features I discuss in the following sections, but if you’re using WordPress for your website, my recommendation is to go with the Yoast SEO plugin. It’s free and simple to use and it’s perfect for someone who’s just starting with on-page SEO.
And now let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Setting up your pages for success with search engine goes through optimizing the following elements:
I’m putting it first because it’s the most important factor for the success of your pages. SEO is becoming extremely competitive and there’s no way to succeed with it (especially if you’re popularizing a new website) without producing extremely high-quality content.
Many people think wrongly that good content = long content. There is an equation that works, but it goes like this:
Good content = content that is useful to the person consuming it.
To put it in more concrete terms, if you want to rank a travel guide on Dublin, what is going to be more useful to your readers — 2000 words explaining the main areas of the city or a map that quickly shows them the most popular attractions and the best areas to go to for food, drink, and entertainment? Word count does not even start to cover what matters when we’re talking about quality.
The web address of your page sends a rather strong signal to search engines about its topic. It’s important that you get it right the first time because you should avoid changing it.
Try to make the URL as short as possible and include the main keyword you want that page to rank for. For example, I would put my Dublin travel guide under domain.com/dublin-guide.
Remember that Google recommends keeping URLs simple.
Web pages have two specific features that search engines use when building up search results:
Contrary to what the name suggests, the meta title tag does not appear anywhere on your page. It sets the name of the browser tab displaying your page and is used by Google and other search engines when the page is featured in search results.
The title tag is a great opportunity to write a headline that both
a) includes the keyword you want this page to rank for and
b) is compelling enough to make searchers click on it and visit your site.
Because mobile is becoming increasingly important and there are many different devices we use to browse and search the internet, there isn’t a hard rule on how long titles should be anymore. The most recent research suggests you should still aim to keep yours under 60 characters to make sure they’re fully displayed in search results.
Although Google won’t always show your page description in a search result snippet, it will quite often. So don’t forget to include the keywords you want to rank for in the description section. Notice how Google highlights the search term in each result in the screenshot below.
Make sure your descriptions are under 135 characters long and that they compel searchers to follow the link to your website.
You can learn more about writing meta descriptions from this guide.
Headers and Subheaders
Use the standard HTML format for headers (H1 to H6) to make it easy for search engines to understand the structure of your page and the importance of each section.
Header 1 should be reserved for the on-page title of your content and should include the main keyword that page is targeting. Make sure you only have one H1 header per page.
Header 2 can be used for the titles of the main sections on your page. They should also include the main keyword you’re targeting (whenever possible) and are also a good place to include additional (longer-tail) keywords you want to rank for with this piece of content.
Every time you’re going a step further in sections, just use the next type of header, e.g. Header 3 for subheadings within an H2 section, and so on. Here’s what a well-structured piece of content should look like when headers are used appropriately:
- H1: The Complete First-Time Traveller’s Guide to Dublin
- H2: Sights & Attractions
- H3: Trinity College
- H3: The Guinness Storehouse
- H3: The Temple Bar Area
- H2: Accommodation
- H3: Hotel 1
- H3: Hotel 2
- H3: Hotel 3
- H2: Restaurants
- H3: Upscale restaurant
- H3: Gastropub
- H3: Another hip place
- H2: Bars
- H3: Bar with live music
- H3: Bar with great cocktails
- H3: Very touristy bar
- H2: Sights & Attractions
Following a clear and exhaustive structure not only makes it easy for search engines to categorize your content, but also helps human readers make sense of your text. They will reward you by spending longer time on your page and coming back to it when they want to learn more about the topic.
Linking between the various pages on your website strategically is a great way to improve the speed at which search engines crawl your website and instruct them about the most important pages on your website.
For example, you can use the hub-and-spoke strategy to rank for highly competitive keywords:
In our example, we can create a page that targets ‘Dublin guide’ and have it link to separate pages that cover ‘Dublin sights’, ‘Dublin restaurants’, and so on.
While the visual material is a great aid for humans, search engine crawlers are not so great (yet) at making sense of them. To help them, you should use the alt tag to explain what the image is about (and ideally include the keyword you’re targeting with this particular piece of content).
In WordPress this can be achieved easily by using the Alternative Text field in the image editor:
If you’re not using WordPress, you can also add the tag manually:
Apart from optimizing each piece of content you publish, you also have to make sure the basic setup of your website is done in a way that it doesn’t hurt your chances to rank.
Step 3: Making sure your website is well accessible to search engines and visitors
One of the important things to keep in mind when doing SEO is that you’re essentially working for two separate customers — your human readers and the bots search engines use to index your website.
While Google and other search engines have been making strides in developing a human-like understanding for their crawlers, many differences still exist between the two. Therefore, your goal should be to create a positive experience for both human and robot visitors on your website.
If you’re anything like me (i.e. very non-technical), understanding how to work with human customers is the easy(-ish) part. It’s robots that I find it more challenging to appease. That’s why, while it’s definitely important to have a strong understanding of the features we discuss in the following paragraphs, I would always encourage you strongly to delegate them to a professional (preferably a developer), who knows how to implement them for your website.
These are the technical elements you need to keep an eye on.
Optimize your website’s loading speed
Both humans and search engine bots prioritize the loading speed of websites. Studies suggest that up to 40% of people leave websites that take longer than 3 seconds to load.
Using Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool or GTMetrix not only can help you find out how quickly your site loads, but will also give you actionable advice on how to further improve the speed of your pages:
Create a sitemap and a robots.txt file
These two items are aimed solely at helping search engines make sense of your website.
A sitemap is a file published in a special format called XML, which allows search engines to find all the pages that exist on your website and understand how they’re connected (i.e. see the overall structure of your website).
Sitemaps do not affect rankings directly, but they allow search engines to find and index new pages on your website faster.
While the sitemap lays out the full structure of your website, the Robots.txt file gives specific instructions to the search engine crawlers on which parts of the website they should and shouldn’t index.
It is important to have a Robots.txt file for your website because search engine allocate a crawl budget to their bots — a number of pages they’re allowed to crawl with each visit.
All major search engine crawlers and other “good” bots recognize and obey the Robots.txt format.
Website architecture matters
The structure of the data on your website also plays a major role in successful SEO performance.
Google takes into account factors such as how long people stay on your website, how many pages they view per visit, how high the bounce rate (single page visits) is, etc. when making decisions on how high to rank your website in search results. Therefore, having a clear structure and navigation not only helps visitors find their way around with ease but will also signal to Google that your site is worth ranking.
In general, setting these features in the right way involves a fair amount of technical knowledge, so you might want to consider hiring a professional to do them for you.
Step 4: Building backlinks from other websites
As a website owner, you’ve got full control of the keywords to target, on-page optimization, and site structure.
However, there’s a part of SEO, which you can’t manage directly, but is essential for your performance — how many websites link back to your page.
Backlinks are among the most important ranking factors
There’s clear evidence showing that external links are one of the factors with the strongest influence on Google’s ranking algorithm.
Our study of 2 million keywords discovered that the number and authority of the pages and domains linking back to a website are the strongest predictor of ranking success.
Even Google has admitted that backlinks are in top 3 factors that affect how SERPs are built.
Here are the most important things you need to know about building backlinks.
Not all links are created equal
In the past, many SEO experts were heavily focused on getting as many links as possible without considering whether the pages were logically related. This gave rise to various forms of abuse such as link farming, buying links, etc.
Over the last few years Google has introduced a number of changes to penalize such practices, so now the quality of the backlinks is much more important than the quantity. Link quality comes down to a number of factors:
Authority of the page and the website
The authority of the site and the page that link to your website has an effect on how valuable that link is. Getting a mention and a link from TripAdvisor’s blog would count for more than a review on a small travel blog. That is because search engines know that TripAdvisor is an authoritative website on travel since there are thousands of other websites that link to it.
In the same way, the page where your link is published also carries its own authority. For example, getting a link from TripAdvisor’s main page for Dublin — which gets thousands of links and visitors itself — is better than having tons of mentions of your hotel on page 66 in forum threads.
At Ahrefs, we use the Domain Rating and URL Rating metrics to help users understand how valuable each backlink opportunity is. You can run any page through Site Explorer to review its stats. Here’s what we get for TripAdvisor’s main page on Dublin:
Dofollow vs. Nofollow links
When placing a link on your website, you can instruct search engine bots whether they should treat it as an endorsement of the page you’re linking to or not. That’s controlled by the optional a rel=nofollow attribute:
<a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="nofollow">Link text</a>
By default, a hyperlink is “dofollow” (i.e. you do not need to add rel=dofollow to your links as this attribute doesn’t even exist). This signals that you endorse the link and want to pass “link juice” to it. Adding the nofollow attribute instructs search engine crawlers that they shouldn’t follow the link.
Websites sometime use the rel=nofollow tag as a way to prevent abuse. For example, you’d often find pages that automatically add rel=nofollow to links placed in the comments section of the website.
Obviously, you’d always want to get a dofollow link for your website, when you’re doing link building.
How to build links
Link building is critical for the success of your SEO strategy, so if you’re prepared to spend resources (time, money, etc.) on producing content, you should also be prepared to commit at least as much time promoting and generating links to your content.
There are many tactics you can use to get other websites to link back to your page. Some are more legitimate than others. However, before you start cherry picking “link building hacks” to try, take the time to review and analyze your competition.
Each niche is different and tactics that work great in one might not be so effective in yours. Therefore, the best thing you can do is to analyze how your competitors are building links and look for patterns.
When you’re done with this, consider some of the following popular tactics.
Identifying opportunities + Email outreach
The first step in your approach should be to find authoritative websites that would be a good fit for linking back to your content (essentially, a combination of high authority and relevance).
Let’s say we decide to go ahead with the idea to publish a Dublin travel guide. We produce a high-quality piece of content and want to build links to it. First, we’ll check out what pages already rank for the keyword we’re going to target.
Here’s a page offering a bit of information, but I would not call it spectacular:
We can use Ahrefs to check what websites link to this page:
As I check the results, I quickly find a good candidate I’d love to get a backlink from:
The name and email of the website owner are available in plain sight, so now I can reach out to them, using a good email script, and suggest them to check out your high-quality piece of content.
Many people think guest blogging is dead because this year Google published a “warning” about guest posting for link building.
But read it carefully:
“Google does not discourage these types of articles in the cases when they inform users, educate another site’s audience or bring awareness to your cause or company. However, what does violate Google’s guidelines on link schemes is when the main intent is to build links in a large-scale way back to the author’s site.”
And one of the violations is:
“Using or hiring article writers that aren’t knowledgeable about the topics they’re writing on.”
So as long as your guest posts are helpful, informative and quality, you don’t have to worry.
Guest blogging works for link building when 3 basic rules are followed:
- You publish on an authoritative website with a large relevant audience.
- You create a high-quality piece of content, which is helpful to the audience of the website where it will be published.
- You add link(s) to relevant resources on your website that would further help the audience expand their knowledge of the topic.
When these 3 are combined, guest blogging can be a great tool for brand-building, generating referral traffic, and improving rankings.
These tactics are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many additional ways to build links. To learn more about link building check out our Noob Friendly Guide to Link Building.
Everything you need to know to get started with SEO
Although search engine optimization has gotten very competitive in the last few years, it is still by far the most effective way to drive sustainable traffic to your website.
Moreover, the efforts you put in optimizing your website for search add up over time, helping you get even more traffic as long as you’re consistent with SEO.
To achieve this, remember to follow the 4 steps of good basic SEO:
- Find keywords to rank for with the search intent, search volume and keyword difficulty in mind.
- Create pages that are optimized to rank for the keyword(s) they’re targeting.
- Make sure your website loads fast and that it is structured so that it’s readable to both search engines and human readers.
- Build links from other high-quality websites to the page you want to rank.
Over time this process will help you build up the authority of your website and you will be able to rank for more competitive keywords with high search volumes.
If you think I missed some other important search engine optimization basics, please let me know in comments!