SEO Basics: Beginner's Guide to Search Engine Optimization (2020)
If you're a complete newbie to online marketing and don't even know what search engine optimization (SEO) means, this detailed beginner's guide is just for you.
In this in-depth article, I'll cover the fundamental concepts of SEO and tell you everything you need to know to get started.
But before everything else, let me tell you this.
SEO is one of the most valuable skills you can have as an online marketer and there's nothing complex or mysterious about it (the "Gurus" and "Experts" will kill me for saying this)
To get an idea of its demand, I searched SEO jobs on Upwork.
Look what I found.
That's more than 12 thousand businesses looking for SEO professionals.
A recent survey by BrightLocal which featured more than 600 professionals from the US and the UK found that 48% of SEOs earned more than $60,000 in 2019.
But even if you don't offer SEO services, knowing even the basics will help you immensely in finding potential online business opportunities and taking your business to the next level.
For example, it took Adam Enfroy just a few months to take his blog from 0 to 150K visitors and more than $10K in affiliate sales.
All becuase of smart SEO strategies.
StopDrinkingAlcohol, a 1-year-old content site, got sold on Flippa for $25000 thanks to its strong SEO and consistent search traffic.
Another site, ScooterMadness, was sold for $60,000 on Flippa.
Again, thanks mainly to SEO.
There are so many other sites that were sold on Flippa for thousands of dollars just becuase of strong SEO and consistent traffic from search engines.
And here's the best part.
You don't even need to be an SEO expert to achieve these results.
Just a clear understanding of the fundamentals is enough to get you going.
Keep reading for a full dose of SEO knowledge.
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What Are Search Engines and Why Do They Matter?
Technically, a search engine is a publicly accessible online database of websites that you can use to search for information on the internet.
For most internet users, though, search engines are the window to the internet.
I say this from personal experience.
One of my uncles still believes you need to search for a site on Google to access it.
And he's not alone.
Studies show that 93% of all online experiences start with search engines.
And when I say search engines, it always means Google.
Just look at the chart below to find out.
Almost 88% of all online searches are made on Google which makes it by far the biggest search engine on the web.
Other search engines like Yahoo, Bing, Baidu, and Yandex share the remaining 12%.
Google is the driving engine behind millions of businesses across the globe and literally powers the internet.
Consider these stats.
- 87% of smartphone users use a search engine at least once a day.
- More than 80% of online shoppers search Google for online reviews before making a purchase.
- Search has completely changed the way local sales happen. Have a look at this study by Google
- 76% of searches on smartphones result in store visits and 28% of them convert into customers.
- Google handles more than 75000 searches per second and its search is growing by nearly 15% per year.
In short, Google and other search engines have a decisive role in the online browsing and purchase habits of consumers around the world.
And no business, that's looking to drive sales and leads online, can afford to ignore them completely.
What Is the Core Purpose of Search Engines?
To serve the most relevant and useful search results against user queries.
Searchers are Google's number one priority and it regularly updates its search algorithms to make sure it's serving the best possible search results to its users.
This is what Google says in its core philosophy as well.
Google doesn't care about you.
It only cares about its searchers and what's best for them.
It doesn't matter if you have the best site on the web or if you've published 10,000 words on a topic.
Google owes you nothing.
If your site and its content are useful to its users, it'll rank you in its search results.
If not, you can't force it to do so.
If you want to take advantage of the seemingly unlimited reach of Google Search, you need to align your marketing strategy with its core purpose.
This is where search engine optimization comes in.
What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) And Why Is It Important?
You've already read the definition of SEO earlier in the FAQs section.
Now let me describe SEO from a different perspective.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a marketing technique in which you align your site's content and structure with Google's search guidelines and the needs of your target audience.
Doing so helps your site rank higher in search results for your target keywords.
Why is it important to rank higher in search results?
Becuase, as I've already told you, Google is the biggest traffic source on the internet that resolves billions of searches every day.
Ranking on Google's first page for a high traffic keyword can open traffic floodgates to your site.
By default, Google shows ten search results per page.
Here's what a search results page looks like
For many keywords, the first few spots are reserved for paid search results which only appear as long as the advertiser keeps paying Google for it using Google Ads.
Organic search results are free spots given to the sites that are the most relevant to the searched keyword.
To claim these free search spots, you need to perform SEO on your site.
The image below shows why it's important to rank higher in Google Search.
The top 3 results on Google for any search keyword get more than 75% of the total clicks.
Almost half of those clicks (around 31.7%) go to the top-ranking page.
Overall, the first page gets nearly 92% of all the clicks.
This is why the following quote (I don't know who said it) is one of my favorites.
"The best place to hide a dead body is the second page of Google Search results" - Unknown
If you're not ranking on page 1 for your target keyword, you don't matter becuase you won't get any traffic.
Almost all the clicks go to the first page as I've already told you.
The higher you rank, the more traffic you'll get.
This is why there's so much competition between websites to reach the top ten results for competitive keywords.
But traffic is just one of the benefits of SEO.
There are many others as well.
Let me share a few in the next section
The Benefits of SEO - Reasons Why You Need SEO
I can list dozens of compelling reasons why your site needs SEO.
But I'll restrict myself to the most important ones.
Let's have a quick look at them
SEO Builds Your Site's Credibility
Ranking in the top three for a competitive keyword isn't possible without great SEO.
And great SEO isn't possible without high quality, authoritative, knowledgeable, and actionable content.
When you break into the top search results for a high volume keyword, people start considering you as an industry expert. It builds your credibility and establishes your site as an authority in your niche.
This is why the number one ranking page gets more than 31% of the total clicks for a search keyword.
Look at the image below and tell me where you'd click if you'd been searching for this keyword.
If you're like most people, you'd go for the featured snippet (also known as position zero) or the first result below it.
Becuase it appears as the most credible site and directly answers the question the searcher has asked.
That's the case with most keywords.
Thanks to Google's ever-improving algorithms, the top-ranking pages are almost always the ones with the best quality content that's closest to the searcher's query.
It's like a trophy awarded by Google to the most authoritative site on that particular topic.
SEO Is Cheaper Than Paid Advertising
Search engine marketing (SEM) (or paid advertising) is a great way to attract leads quickly and generate sales if you have all your pricing worked out.
It gives you a ticket to the top spot in search results without waiting for months.
But SEO is still a more cost-effective strategy.
In advertising, you need to keep paying to stay on top of the search results.
If you're advertising for a competitive keyword, the costs keep going up becuase there are so many other advertisers looking for the same spot.
In SEO, however, it takes time and a lot of effort initially to reach the top search spots. But once you're there, your job gets easier and the costs per lead reduce significantly over time.
But here's the most revealing fact.
A study by Sparktoro found that organic search results get almost 20x more clicks as compared to paid results.
This means that while it does take more effort to reach the first page organically by using SEO, your target audience is much more likely to click on your site if it's ranking organically as compared to a paid search result.
SEO Results in Higher Lead Conversions
Here's what a recent study by SmartInsights found.
Search traffic is right behind email marketing in terms of conversions.
This means that the visitors from search engines, as compared to the other sources, are much more likely to turn into customers.
Once again, becuase of Google's increasingly smart algorithms, only the most relevant websites make it to the top search spots.
If you do SEO the right way, you have a great chance of reaching just the kind of visitors you're looking for.
SEO Means Great User Experience
A few years ago, SEO meant simply stuffing your content with high traffic keywords and watching Google send hoards of visitors your way.
That doesn't happen anymore (becuase you know Google is much smarter now)
Today, among several other things, user experience is a factor Google considers when ranking sites for different keywords.
What does user experience mean?
In simple words, the convenience with which searchers land on your site from Google and find the information they're looking for.
User experience covers everything from your site's design, whether it's mobile responsive or not, it's navigation structure, its load speed, and the way your content is presented and organized.
So when I say you should invest in SEO, what I'm really saying is that your site needs to offer amazing user experience.
Becuase without it, SEO is incomplete.
Google makes sure that only the sites that offer the best user experience make it to the first page.
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SEO Results in Free Citations and PR
Brands spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on digital PR, guest blogging, and backlink acquisition.
An Ahrefs study found that it costs around $360 to purchase backlinks from sites that accept paid guest posts.
But that's just a fraction of the costs involved in the overall PR and link building activities that brands invest in every year.
Being a professional guest blogger myself, I can tell you that many brands spend on PR and backlinks without doing any content marketing or SEO on their own sites.
This is plain stupid.
SEO can help you rank for some of the most competitive keywords without spending a fortune.
And once you make it to the first page, you'll start getting backlinks automatically.
Becuase content creators like me are always looking to add 2-3 (sometimes more) relevant and high-quality external links to our content.
Most of the time, we link to the sites that are already ranking on the first page becuase they're reliable and have great content.
Even in this article, you can see that I've linked to several articles from third party sites.
They didn't pay me to do it.
I linked to them becuase they had good content which I could use as a reference in my article.
It would've cost them around $400-500 to buy a link from a site like NicheHacks (sorry, we don't offer paid links)
But becuase they were already ranking on the first page thanks to SEO, they got the link for free.
This happens regularly once you make it to the top search spots.
SEO Makes Your Site More Valuable
Did you know you could sell your site and earn as much as 36-40 times your monthly income?
That is if your site is ranking for competitive keywords, has great SEO and gets a ton of organic traffic.
Having a strong search profile makes it much easier to sell your site for a high price tag.
Becuase the buyers know they can recover their investment in just a few months by using the site's search visibility.
If you analyze the sites sold on Flippa, you'll find that the ones with strong SEO always sell faster and for a higher price than other sites.
For example, look at the traffic stats of a site recently sold on Flippa in the screenshot below.
How much do you think it sold for?
The site makes just over $200/month but it was sold for $6000.
Pretty good return for a 1-year-old site.
95% of the traffic to this site (nearly 30K unique visitors/m) comes from Google Search.
That's one of the main reasons why it managed to get a good deal.
That's what SEO does, it makes your site more valuable and lucrative for potential buyers and investors.
SEO Helps You Diversify Your Income
Once your site makes it to the top search spots because of SEO and starts getting regular traffic, there are dozens of ways you can diversify its income sources.
The image below shows some of the ways you can make money from a high traffic blog.
For example, the traffic coming in from organic search can be (and should be) converted into email subscribers by using lead magnets.
Your email list can be used to promote affiliate products, launch your own courses, grow social media groups, or even launch new sites.
Similarly, a consistent inflow of organic search traffic makes your site a lucrative option for direct advertisers and marketers looking to publish sponsored content.
SEO Helps You Grow Your Network
When your site starts ranking for high traffic keywords, other successful marketers start reaching out to you with potential partnership offers and business opportunities.
You also start getting featured in round-up posts, interviews, and best-of type articles.
Like the one below.
This helps you grow your network and build relationships that are crucial for taking your online business to the next level.
SEO Helps You Beat Giant Corporations
You can't imagine competing with large brands on conventional media becuase of their huge marketing budgets.
But SEO allows you to take them on and even beat them in organic search results.
It's no secret that Google loves brands and considers them more credible and reliable than unknown niche sites.
But if a site is answering the questions of its audience better than a competing brand, Google would not hesitate to rank it higher.
With so many benefits, SEO is a necessity for any business looking to build its presence on the internet.
But how does search engine optimization work?
I'll cover this in detail in the next section.
The SEO Process - How Does SEO Work?
So how exactly do you get started with search engine optimization?
I'll quickly list down the main steps involved in optimizing a website for search engines and the things that you as a marketer need to keep in mind.
But you can read about each step in a lot more detail in this extensive SEO Process Checklist that I wrote some time ago.
01Technical SEO - Setting Up a Strong SEO Infrastructure
SEO doesn't work in isolation from other online marketing activities.
In fact, it starts even before you set up your website
This is called technical SEO and its objective is to make it easy for search engine spiders to find, crawl and index your website, understand your content, and serve it to your target audience.
Here are the key things involved in technical SEO
Choosing a High Performace Website Hosting Service
The standard of the web hosting company you choose for your site has a direct impact on its SEO performance.
Website load speed and security are two of the most important factors Google considers when ranking sites in search results.
If two sites have identical SEO profiles but are hosted on different servers, the site that uses an SSL certificate and loads faster will rank higher.
Chrome browser even labels non-HTTPs sites as "Not Secure"
All of these things are tied to your web hosting service.
We've done detailed reviews and comparisons of some of the best hosting companies in our view (WPEngine, BlueHost, HostGator) that'll help you make the right choice.
Setting Up Google Search Console
Google Search Console is your site's SEO control room. It's the first thing you should configure once you've set up your site.
Search Console gives you all the key information about your site's performance on Google Search, the keywords it's ranking for, the number of pages indexed by Google bots, and whether there are any errors or problems in crawling your site.
Here's how the Search Console dashboard looks like.
You can also check other important things like your site's load speed, mobile usability, and any manual penalties in your Search Console account.
Without it, you won't have any idea how your site's performing in terms of SEO.
Using a Responsive Website Design
More than half of the global internet traffic now comes from smartphones and mobile devices. If your site's design is not mobile-friendly, your search rankings will suffer becuase Google considers responsive design a mandatory part of a good user experience.
You can check your site's mobile compatibility using Google's Mobile-Friendly Test.
Here's what it says about NicheHacks
The easiest way to comply with this condition and provide an excellent experience to your site's mobile visitors is to use a responsive website theme.
There are dozens you can find on ThemeForest and other design marketplaces.
Optimizing Website Speed
I've already told you how crucial website speed is for your site's rankings.
But there are factors other than web hosting that impact your site's performance. For example, the scripts running on your site or the speed with which it loads images etc. all have an effect on its speed.
You can measure your site's speed using Page Speed Insights, a free tool by Google.
It shows you the page speed score for both mobile and desktop versions of your site and helps you identify the things that are slowing down your site's load time.
Submitting an XML Sitemap
An XML sitemap is a list of URLs of your site that helps Google understand the structure and hierarchy of your site's content.
You can create it using any sitemap plugin and submit it to your Google Search Console account.
Setting Up Robots.txt
When you don't want Google crawlers to index certain pages or content of your site, you can mention them in Robots.txt which is located in the root folder of your website.
Here's a detailed guide to help you understand Robots.txt and its purpose.
There's a lot more to technical SEO but I've mentioned the most important factors you needed to know at this stage.
Let's now discuss On-Page SEO.
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02On-Page SEO - Optimizing Website Content
On-Page SEO covers everything that appears on your site including its URLs, content, titles, visuals and several other things.
Let me quickly describe them to you.
Targeting the Right Keywords
Keyword research is the backbone of SEO.
In its early years, Google Search used to match user queries with the number of times a keyword appeared on a page to rank websites.
It has come a long way from those days.
In 2020, and beyond, keyword research is about finding high traffic topics (not isolated keywords) that people are searching for and covering them in a natural and holistic way by creating high-quality content that using LSI terms, and other topically relevant keywords.
In short, you can't just stuff keywords into your content to rank for them anymore.
Here's a useful image that shows how keyword research has changed over the years.
As the image shows, Google now focuses on the actual intent of the searcher when ranking sites instead of plainly matching it with keywords in the content.
This is a fundamental SEO topic that you need to study in detail.
I've written a pretty extensive guide on keyword research that should help you understand the topic better.
Plus, I've also shared several ways you can use Ahrefs (the best keyword research and SEO tool) to find high traffic keywords and topics for your site.
Make sure you read both of them.
Creating High-Quality Content
Once you have identified the topics and keywords to target, it's time to create content around them that's better, more actionable, more engaging, and more thorough than your competitors.
Content creation is a key part of on-page SEO.
In fact, it is where 90% of your SEO success is decided.
The stats speak for themselves.
The core objective of content creation is to give your target audience what it wants.
Publish stuff that answers their questions, gives them step by step guidelines, helps them buy the right products, and makes their purchase decisions easier.
The more you can do this, the higher you'll rank for your target keywords and topics.
Plus, it's also crucial to format your content the right way so that your readers actually consume the content you publish.
A study by Webdam found something really interesting about modern-day blog readers.
Only 20% of your readers actually read what you publish.
The rest just skim through it.
You need to format your articles in a skim-friendly way.
You can do it by
- Using multiple headings in the content body
- Using short paragraphs of 2-3 lines max.
- Breaking down the article into sections
- Using bulletin points
- Highlighting the key points
- Adding an index
- Using more images and videos within the content
I've published this detailed article on how to develop a content strategy and the different types of content you should publish to drive traffic and sales.
Plus, I've also shared step by step guidelines on how to write an article that engages readers and keeps them coming back for more.
Reading them will answer most of your questions about content creation.
Using Your Target Keyword
Although using the exact keyword in your content is not as important as it used to be, but it still makes a difference becuase it's the term your audience is looking for.
Here are a few places where you should look to use your target keyword, its variations, and other terminologies closely related to it
- In the main article headline using the H1 tag
- In H2, H3 sub-headings wherever it makes sense
- In the opening few sentences of your content in a natural way
- Throughout the content wherever it makes sense.
Again, don't compromise user experience by trying to push in keywords just to meet a certain count.
If you can place them naturally, great.
If not, don't ruin the quality of your content for it.
Optimizing Images and Visuals
SEO isn't just about text content.
Images, videos, GIFs, infographics, and other forms of visuals are equally important.
A detailed study by Venngage found several eye-opening stats about visual content and SEO.
Did you see that?
Colored visuals increase people's desire to read content by 80%.
This has a direct impact on your site's Average Session Duration which is a key SEO ranking factor.
But visuals can also slow down your site if you don't optimize them properly.
Creating Search Titles and Meta Description
This is how your site appears in search results.
The title, description, and URL all play a role in determining your search rankings in different ways.
The title of your page should immediately tell the readers, by using your main topic keyword, what it is about and should ideally be 50-60 words long.
The URL should be short (2-3 words) with your keyword in it.
The meta description doesn't have a direct impact on your ranking but it gives you an opportunity to engage searchers and persuade them to click on your link. A well-written meta description results in a higher click-through rate of your link which ultimately results in higher rankings.
Adding Internal and External Links
Internal links to the other relevant pages of your site not only add value to your content from the readers' perspective but also help search engines crawl your site faster and deeper.
Similarly, adding a few relevant external links to high-quality sites contributes positively to your rankings.
03Off-Page SEO - Spreading the Word and Building Website Authority
Off-Page SEO is all about building backlinks to your site.
There are other aspects of off-page SEO like social signals, email outreach, guest blogging, press releases, forum contributions etc.
But the ultimate objective behind most of these activities is to build backlinks to your site.
Why are backlinks important?
You'll find the answer in this SEMRush study of the top Google Search ranking factors.
Getting backlinks from relevant and high authority sites is among the top Google Search ranking factors (along with content and user experience).
Google considers every backlink a vote of confidence from other sites to your content.
The more votes you have, the higher you'll rank.
As the graph below shows
How do you get backlinks?
I've described the whole process of creating such content and getting backlinks to it in this detailed article.
Plus, I've also listed the most common link building mistakes that can actually hurt your site's rankings.
Make sure you read both these articles to learn exactly how to build a solid backlink profile.
I've briefly covered the major steps involved in the SEO process which must've given you an idea of how the whole thing works.
But each step requires a lot more detail so I'd strongly recommend reading all the additional articles I've mentioned and link to throughout this post.
Now let's quickly have a look at some of the other important SEO topics.
White-Hat, Grey-Hat, and Black-Hat SEO
What are all these hats about?
White-Hat and Black-Hat are terms coined by marketers and they refer to the different SEO practices people adopt while trying to rank their sites for their target keywords.
White Hat SEO refers to all the best practices of SEO that are recommended by Google.
It involves things like keyword research, high-quality content creation, engaging with the readers, sharing content on social media, spreading the word about it on forums and other legal and clean ways.
Black Hat SEO, on the other hand, is everything that has been strictly prohibited by Google.
It involves things like copying content from other sites, stuffing keywords into content, using software and bots to build thousands of backlinks artificially, paying other sites to link to you, hacking into other sites to build backlinks, and other illegal and immoral activities to boost your search rankings.
The image below lists some of the common White Hat and Black Hat SEO practices.
Grey Hat SEO refers to the things that nobody's really sure about. Some say they're white-hat, some call them black-hat.
What happens when you practice Black-Hat SEO?
Well, your site gets penalized by Google Search algorithms.
Not sure what's a penalty?
Let me explain
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Manual and Algorithmic Google Penalties
When a site uses Black-Hat or Grey-Hat SEO techniques, and as a result violates Google Search guidelines, to outrank its competitors, Google penalizes it and strips it off of its rankings.
As a result, the site stops getting visitors from Google and its traffic nosedives (like the image below shows)
There are two main types of Google penalties.
These are automated and mass penalties that are applied to a fixed criterion across thousands of websites together.
Google doesn't individually notify websites if they're affected by an algorithmic penalty. You can only identify if your site has been penalized by analyzing the symptoms.
Here are some of the red flags to keep an eye on.
To recover from an algorithmic penalty, you must investigate the issue, make corrections to your SEO strategy, and then hope Google automatically reverses its action.
And it is very common for sites to recover their rankings after changing course.
But you can't personally send Google a review request and must wait.
Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, etc. are all popular names of different algorithmic penalties that effected thousands of sites. You can read the complete history of Google's Algorithm Updates here.
A manual penalty occurs when someone from Google's staff reviews your website for a search violation and manually penalizes it.
In such cases, you get a notification in your Search Console account with the details of the action and its reasons.
For manual penalties, you can make the required changes and submit a review request.
If you convince them that you've addressed the issue, the penalty is removed from your site.
Ready To Take Your SEO Skills To The Next Level?
If you've read this far, you know more about the basics and fundamentals of SEO than most people.
As I said before, SEO is one of the most powerful marketing techniques and learning it can be a game-changer for your business.
Now that you know the basics, its time to start applying them to your site to drive results.
The best way to learn SEO is to see it in action.
The more you apply it, the better you'll get at it.
Here are some other articles I'd recommend for more advanced knowledge.