If your business cannot be found online by a simple Google search then it doesn’t exist. Same goes for blogs, websites, or anything in-between. Search engine, or organic traffic is one of the most cost efficient ways to get customers.

The beauty of search engines is that they don’t just bring window shoppers, but you can actually target users who are highly interested in what you have to offer.

Of course, optimizing for search engines is not an easy task, yet the fundamental basics are quite simple and easy to follow.

In this SEO guide I am going to teach you everything a beginner needs to know about SEO so you’ll have a better understanding of how search works, and how you should optimize your pages for better search engine visibility.

What is SEO?

First, you need to understand what SEO (search engine optimization) is.

SEO is the process of optimizing individual pages of a website for a particular set of keywords with the end goal of ranking higher in search results for these keywords. The whole process must follow strict webmaster guidelines, otherwise the website may underperform, get de-indexed, or penalized.

Websites receive penalties when they use shady tactics in order to manipulate search engines into ranking them higher than they should. This approach is not recommended as in the majority of cases you’ll simply waste time, money and energy.

In other words, it’s best to spend your time doing SEO the right way rather than using shady shortcuts hoping for quick results.

How search engines work

Contrary to the popular belief, search engines don’t actually search for information when you hit enter. It’s impossible for a search engine to go through all the pages on the internet, choose the most relevant information, and show it to you.

Instead, search engines send out robots, or spiders to crawl, analyze, and organize all pages on the web beforehand. All the processed information is organized by relevancy and stored in massive data centers all over the globe.

So when you Google something the search engine is able to provide relevant and accurate information based on your keyword within a second anywhere in the world. The page with all the results is called search engine results page, or SERP.

One thing to be aware of is robots cannot crawl pages that don’t have other pages linking to them. In other words, your website structure needs to be carefully planned, where all pages of your website can be accessed using a link from another page. Of course, if you want all your pages to get indexed (and you most likely do).

The SERP

Search engines show two types of results in the SERPs: organic and paid results. Paid results appear at the very top and bottom of the page. They are usually labeled as an “Ad.

Organic results are everything in-between.

Organic and paid results displayed in Google

Just three years ago paid results also appeared on the right side of the SERPs. However, in 2016 Google officially removed ads from the right side to bring the desktop experience closer to mobile.

SEO focuses on improving a website’s rankings in organic results as it doesn’t cost anything to appear in these results (kind of). Paid results can be quite competitive and extremely expensive. However, you can use paid results to test keywords for profitability in order to decide whether these keywords are worth targeting using SEO.

The SEO process can be split into two parts: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.

On-page SEO

On-page optimization is the most vital part of any SEO campaign. If your website does not have proper meta tags, lacks content, or the content is structured improperly there’s almost no chance of you ranking high in the majority of search engines.

Google considers over 200 different factors for ranking pages so you need to make sure you optimize for as many variables as possible. This will greatly increase your website’s search visibility across all search engines as most of them follow more or less the same principles when it comes to providing relevant and accurate search results.

With all that said, let’s focus with the basics first and cover more advanced stuff in other articles.

The head element

Every single web page has a head element which includes all the important information for robots about the page. In the head section you’ll find the following elements: the title tag, meta description and meta keywords.

The title tag

The title tag is arguably the most important element on a page since it is one of the key elements which allow search engines to determine the topic of a page. It is the first line of clickable text displayed in the SERPs.

It’s incredibly important to include the keyword you target in the title, and to make sure it appeals to your target audience. Crafting great titles is an art itself as titles are currently limited to 60 characters.

It’s also important to know that each page must have a unique title to avoid confusion among robots. That’s why all websites add the name of their website to the end of each title. That way all pages in the same niche using the same title are unique.

Here’s an example of a good title for the keyword “apples”.

Example of the title tag in SERP.

Note the name of the website (Organic Facts) at the end.

The meta description tag

The next important element is the meta description tag which is displayed below the URL. It serves as a little advert for a page so you have a chance to explain to web surfers what benefits they may get by going to your page instead of competitors’ website. This is where you should give your creative side all the freedom it needs.

The description ranges between 50 and 300 characters depending on the situation. A good rule of a thumb is to keep it limited to 170 characters. That way it won’t get cut off in the majority of cases.

The meta keywords tag

The final tag in the head element used to be the meta keywords tag but it was so heavily abused that Google no longer considers it as a ranking factor.

The combination of all these elements you see in the SERPs is called a snippet.

Code example:

Here’s an example of how the code should look like inside the head elements of a page. Let’s assume we are optimizing our page for the keyword “red bananas”.

<head>
<title>13 Incredible Facts About Red Bananas | Bananaradise</title>
<meta name="description" content="Red bananas are awesome. Find out why!">
<meta name="keywords" content="red bananas, facts">
</head>

Although I’ve included meta keywords in the example above, you can avoid using it as it no longer serves any purpose. Even my favorite SEO plugin for WordPress (Yoast SEO) removed it altogether.

The importance of a good snippet

Why writing a good snippet for each page is important?

The snippet actually plays a huge role in user experience. For example, if a page appears on the first place of Google’s organic results, but has a low click-through rate compared to the industry average, Google will decide that this page’s snippet is poorly optimized and will lower its’ position.

Or if you have a high click-through, but users spend very little time on that page – click the back button within a few seconds for example – Google also considers this as a poor user experience, and most likely will lower the rankings of that page.

So how to go about snippets?

Most importantly make sure you include the keyword you’re targeting both in the title and the description. If the keyword appears in the description it will appear bold in search results. This will increase the CTR (click-though rate) for that listing.

In addition, there’s evidence that the closer your keyword to the beginning of the title the more it affects your position.

Write short, concise and to the point descriptions. Don’t promise something you’re unable to deliver on your website. Avoid using clickbait titles and descriptions.

Short URL is also a ranking factor

Believe it or not, Google prefers short, keyword rich URLs a lot more than long messy ones. In a PubCon interview Matt Cutts said the following when asked about the length of URLs:

If you can make your title four- or five-words long – and it is pretty natural. If you have got a three, four or five words in your URL, that can be perfectly normal. As it gets a little longer, then it starts to look a little worse. Now, our algorithms typically will just weight those words less and just not give you as much credit.

Preferably, you want your URL to include the keyword you’re targeting. This will not just positively affect your rankings, but also may improve your CTR as the URL is also displayed in the snippet.

The purpose of this is to make easily sharable links for social networks where a user can guess what the page is about just by glancing at the URL. This is an easy parameter to optimize and requires very little effort on your part.

To separate words in URLs use hyphens only.

Fortunately, this is quite easy to implement in WordPress using permalinks. I’ve covered this in my other article where I talk about things you should do after installing WordPress.

Here’s an example of a perfectly optimized snippet for the keyword “photoshop tutorials”:

Example of a perfectly optimized snippet for the keyword "photoshop tutorials"

H1-H6 tags

The next element of on-page SEO optimization is the heading, or H1-H6 tags where H1 tag is the most important heading and H6 is the least important.

In almost all cases H1 tag includes the same information as the title tag (minus the name of the web site) since it serves the same purpose, except it doesn’t appear in the SERP. The H1 is the title tag for users.

There should be only one H1 tag present per page. Otherwise search robots may end up confused about the topic of the page. H1 abuse may even lead to penalties.

H2 to H6 tags should be used as subheadings in order of importance. In most cases you will be using H2, H3 and H4. There are very few cases where you actually need to go further than H4.

Here’s a good example of how headings and subheadings are implement:

Example of H1-H6 tags, on-page SEO optimization.

Code example:

This is how headings and subheadings look as code:

<body>
   <h1>This is the heading of an article</h1>
         <p>This is a paragraph</p>
   <h2>This is a subheading of the main article</h2>
         <p>This is a paragraph</p>
   <h3>This is a subheading of H2</h3>
         <p>This is a paragraph</p>
   <h2>This is another subheading of the main article</h2>
</body>

Content length and keyword density

Length

I’ve already written about writing great content so I suggest you check it out as well.

Long content ranks a lot better than short content. There’s plenty of evidence to support that. Although, it’s not applicable to all niches.

The general consensus is if you’re targeting informational keywords then longer content is more valuable since it provides in-depth information. A good target to keep in mind when writing content is to aim for at least a thousand words.

Keyword density

There are many SEO experts, services and enthusiasts who will advice you to write with 1%, 2%, or 3% keyword density. Keyword density of 1% means a keyword is used once in every 100 words of an article.

In my humble opinion, this is horrible advice.

First of all, keyword density is not a ranking factor as it can be easily abused. Second, have you tried reading a keyword stuffed article (especially targeting long tail keywords)? It’s not pleasant to read at all – infuriating to say the least.

While you may win more relevancy score points in search engine’s eyes, you will end up delivering negative user experience. This leads to zero user engagement, little time on page, and most importantly zero shares across all the social platforms.

In other words, by stuffing your content with keywords you ignore the most valuable asset of your SEO campaign – the user. Remember, the user shares, likes and links to your content, not search engines. Don’t write for robots, write for users.

If you don’t believe me, here’s what Matt Cutts has to say about keyword density.

A good rule to follow is to include your targeted keyword once in the first 100 words and then once at the end of the article. That’s all the density your article really needs.

Page Speed

One important, but often overlooked, ranking factor is page speed. Back in January of this year Google announced that page speed as a ranking factor will be implemented across all search results (mobile and desktop). So using a reliable and fast web hosting is a must in 2018 and beyond.

In addition, you should optimize your web code as much as possible (or hire a developer to do that). If you’re using WordPress it’s a great idea to install a caching plugin like WP Rocket, or W3 Total Cache.

Websites which use many images should optimize them instead of uploading high resolution versions directly to the website. You can learn how to optimize images in my image optimization guide for the web.

What’s even more interesting about page speed is how slow pages affect conversions. This is particularly important for eCommerce websites, where conversion optimization is extremely valuable.

It’s strongly advised to keep your page load speed under 3 seconds as stated by Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller.

To check whether you have a slow website use the following tools:

HTTPS

HTTPS is a ranking factor since 2014. If you want to be competitive in SERPs you better have SSL enabled. An SSL secured website can be distinguished from an unsecured website by a green lock in the address bar.

In addition, SSL may increase your website’s conversion rate as users generally feel safe to purchase from a secured website. So I strongly advise you get SSL protection for your website, even if it’s for a small blog.

Green lock representing an SSL enabled website.

Mobile-friendly website

Google gives priority to mobile-friendly websites in mobile search results. The overall push is towards fast, responsive websites, where they can be easily accessed using a slow 3G connection without requiring a lot of bandwidth.

If you’re developing a new website make sure it has has a responsive design. If you have a very old website I suggest you revamp your design completely to fit with the new requirements. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that your website disappears from all the important positions in mobile results.

Image SEO

As images play an important role online it’s good to know they can and should be optimized as well. Although, search engines – even with AI learning – are unable to read content inside them, there are things you can do to help them understand.

File name

The first part is to name the image properly. I recommend using the same principle used for permalinks. Give the image a descriptive and relevant name, avoiding stop words. For example, if you download images from stock websites they usually have a name full of random letters and numbers.

I suggest you rename the image to include relevant (to that image) words. If the image displays a sunset over a beach it’s a good idea to rename the image to something like beautiful-sunset-beach.jpg.

Alt tag

The next step is to optimize the image alternative tag. The alt tag serves two important purposes.

One, if the image cannot be loaded it will display the alternative text so a user can have an idea what the image is about. Two, in case a person is blind a screen reader will read out the text which is located inside the alt tag.

It’s important to not abuse the alternative text tag for the sole purpose of stuffing keywords which are relevant to the article. This attribute is not intended for that.

Provide an accurate, relevant and descriptive information of the image. The only scenario where you should include keywords you’re targeting is when the image is relevant to your content (infographics, statistics, other data).

Good alt text example

<img src="http://www.my-domain.com/beach-sunset.jpg" alt="Photo of a beautiful
sunset overlooking the beach with a couple walking by." />

Bad alt text example

<img src="http://www.my-domain.com/beach-sunset.jpg" alt="seo, seo tools, 
seo guides, seo keywords" />

Internal links

Interlinking, or internal links are an important part of on-page SEO. Remember, I mentioned the fact that robots can’t access, crawl and index pages which don’t have links pointing them? Internal links solve that problem.

By linking to new content from already indexed and established pages on your website you significantly improve crawling and indexing of these pages. The most valuable internal links in SEO are in-content links with descriptive anchor text. Anchor text is the clickable text on a webpage.

In addition, by linking to relevant pages within your own website you may decrease user bounce-rate and increase average time on site. Both of these are minor indicators to search engines that you’re delivering high quality relevant content.

Anchor text

Anchor text is important not just for on-page SEO, but it’s the ultimate goal of off-page SEO. In-content links from valuable and trusted resources with your target anchor text  (keyword) hold the most SEO value. They are the links all SEO experts are after as only a few of them can sky rocket your rankings.

Using internal links with proper anchor text is also something you should be aware of. Never link to your other content using anchor text such as “click here”, “read more”, or “this article”. Instead use descriptive keyword rich anchor text to better distribute SEO value among your pages.

I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say you have page A which links to page B using “click here” anchor text. Page A went viral and received a ton of links. Now page A ranks really well. Page B does a lot better too, but instead of ranking for an important keyword, it ranks better for “click here” which is just a waste of a link.

Now you can change the link, but imagine if you have hundreds of articles and all of them were interlinked incorrectly. That’s a lot of rewriting so it’s better to strategically plan your internal links in advance to avoid unnecessary work in the future.

Code example

<a href="http://www.my-domain.com/">Keyword Rich Anchor Text</a>

If you have trouble figuring out how to interlink properly head over to any Wikipedia page, see how they use links within content – that’s how it’s should be done.

Outgoing links

I admit when I was just starting to learn SEO I was reluctant to link to other websites because I didn’t want to share PageRank with others. However, it turns out that outgoing links to high authority resources are actually a trust signal to search engines indicating that your website is not a link farm. So don’t be shy to link to other relevant resources.

Nofollow attribute

There are certain cases where you want to link to a webpage but you don’t want search engines to consider it as a vote of confidence to avoid passing PageRank. This is done using the nofollow attribute.

There are many cases where using nofollow is recommended. For example, I nofollow all the pages that have no significant value to search engines and users. These are privacy policy pages, terms of use, various disclaimers and so on.

Users still can find these pages using the links in the footer of the website but there’s no point in passing PageRank to these pages.

Code example

<a href="http://www.my-domain.com/privacy-policy" rel="nofollow">Privacy Policy</a>

Off-page SEO

After you’ve completed your on-page optimizations it’s time to move on to off-page SEO. Off-page search engine optimization simply focuses on creating authority, trust and relevancy in the eyes of search engines using factors, which are not coming from your own website. That’s pretty much the difference between off-page SEO and on-page SEO.

The general concept of building trust online comes down to acquiring backlinks from relevant, reputable and established websites. Backlinks are essentially online votes which vouch for the quality of the website they’re linking to.

People don’t share pages with content that is not worth sharing. People link to pages that are relevant to them and their friends. And since linking actually requires a real person (webmaster) to create the backlink it counts as a spam filter.

Trusted websites with huge online following and reputation will never link to spam websites unless they’ve been hacked. With all that said, links are not the only off-page ranking factors. There are a few more worth mentioning.

Off-page factors

Here’s a good chart visualizing all the major off-page ranking factors by Moz.

Off-page ranking factors

Links

Links are the backbone of every off-page SEO campaign as they hold the most weight in terms of ranking factors. Acquiring links is a difficult, time consuming and slow process unless you’re consistently able to create viral content.

That’s why backlinks are the most important and valuable off-page ranking factor. Has been since the beginning of SEO and will stay here for a long time.

However, all links are not equal, so which links are the best?

The best type of links you can get are naturally occurring links from trusted websites within content with a relevant keyword rich anchor text.

But as with everything in life – too much of a good thing can actually be bad for you and your website. By acquiring too many backlinks with the same anchor text search engines may actually penalize you because it’s completely unnatural.

Your best bet is to get backlinks with a mention of your website, or your name as an anchor text in 80-90% of cases.

Paid links

Since backlinks are extremely valuable businesses with massive marketing budgets can simply buy links and get themselves to the top quickly, right?

That’s not the case because Google is strongly against paid backlinks and enforces webmasters who are receiving money, or other compensation for backlinks to add the nofollow attribute. Otherwise, they will be penalized.

This policy makes the web more or less a level playing field.

Brand mentions

Another off-page trust signal to search engines are mentions of your brand. The majority of modern search engines are able to understand user feedback on review websites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google Reviews etc.

This is an indicator that your brand is actually genuine and you’re not just fooling around. So even someone doesn’t link directly to your website/service it still counts as a signal. Of course it doesn’t hold as much weight as an actual backlink.

A good strategy is to setup alerts for brand mentions, or mentions of your website as a Google alert. When someone mentions your website, or you – you’ll be notified. You can then contact the webmaster and ask them kindly to turn that mention into a backlink.

Social shares

Social shares like likes, tweets, plus one’s are all part of off-page SEO. Although, they are not an important ranking factor they certain hold their own value.

Generally, social signals occur naturally when you create great content. The only thing you should do about social shares is to encourage your audience to share, like and tweet your content with a strong call to action on every page.

To do that just make sure your content is easy to share by implementing social buttons on every page.

The different “hats” SEO wears

When you start learning more about SEO there are a few terms that might pop-up on the web: white hat SEO, grey hat SEO and black hat SEO. These are simply different approaches to SEO.

White hat SEO

White hat SEO is the “good guy SEO” where you follow webmaster guidelines and focus on user experience first and robots second. This is the type of SEO you should focus as most of it occurs naturally. Your job is to create great content and share it with other influences in your niche. The rest will happen organically.

Grey hat SEO

Grey hat SEO are middle of the road techniques where you haven’t joined the dark side yet. These techniques almost break webmaster guidelines and may not be detectable by SEO algorithms. However, they are potentially punishable by a manual review.

Black hat SEO

Black hat SEO is basically the “bad guy” of the SEO world. These techniques include various abuses like link farms, link schemes, bots, spam, hacking and everything in-between.

I strongly advice not to follow any of black hat practices as they don’t hold any real long term value. You will be penalized and recovering from such penalties is a nightmare. It’s usually best to start a new website from scratch.

Diagnosing SEO issues

If you’re just started learning SEO there are many things that can go wrong with your website. Your website may have hundreds of issues that can hurt rankings and overall search visibility.

To successfully diagnose these issues most search engine provide great tools to webmasters for free. Google offers a tool called the Search Console, while Bing and Yahoo’s tool is called the Webmaster Tool.

Every website owner must use these tools as they provide all the important information about your website including crawling, indexing and ranking of all your pages. If any errors or penalties occur you’ll get a notification. From there you’ll know exactly what needs fixing, which completely eliminates guess work.

They are absolutely free – use them!

Conclusion

SEO, or search engine optimization is a complex process which requires a lot of planning. From proper site structure to relevant anchor texts within content – there are a magnitude of different factors you must consider when optimizing your website for search.

Hopefully, this 3,000+ word SEO guide helped you understand the most basic principles of SEO, and you learned a thing or two. Congratulations, if you made it this far and I wish the tips outlined here will help you sky rocket your website’s ranking to new heights.

With all that said, SEO is an extremely complex subject and I’ve only managed to cover the most fundamental concepts (and not even all of them). If you’re actually interested in SEO and want to learn more,  I recommend you spend more time reading other more in-depth SEO guides:

I’ve put a lot of effort into creating this SEO guide. I sincerely hope it will be helpful to someone. If you have questions about SEO, feel free to ask in the comments below! Feedback appreciated as well.