In this SEO guide, you’ll learn everything a beginner needs to know about search engine optimization in 2021: from a basic definition and real-life examples to specific strategies you can use to earn more high-intent search traffic. Let’s dive in.

What is SEO? A definition:

SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It refers to the process of improving the visibility of a web page on search engine results pages (SERPs). With strategies related to keywords, meta tags, links, images, blog posts, and more, SEO helps businesses generate organic (unpaid) traffic through search engines like Google and Bing.

Why is SEO important?

SEO is important because search engines are major referrers of traffic. Every day, 2 trillion searches take place on Google. Each of these searches is an opportunity.

When people search for something related to your business, you want to be the one they find before your competition. In a way, asking “Why is SEO is important?” is a little like asking “Why would I want my storefront to be on the busiest street in the city?”

Because when more people see you, they’re more likely to walk through your door. SEO strategies help move your business toward the main street of the internet — page 1 of search engine result pages — so you can be seen.

On top of added visibility, using SEO strategies to win organic search traffic is low-cost. It’s not like search advertising, which requires continued investment.

Also, unlike advertising, SEO can actually deliver better results over time with very little maintenance. This makes it a widely-used marketing tactic by small businesses and enterprises alike.

How do search engines work?

We’re all familiar with what the Google search bar looks like and the basics of how it works for a searcher. You type in a question or term, hit enter, and you’re presented with millions of answers in a fraction of a second.

It’s like magic.

But there’s a side to Google you don’t see. The team at Moz does a great job of explaining how it works:

Search engines are answer machines. They scour billions of pieces of content and evaluate thousands of factors to determine which content is most likely to answer your query.

Search engines do all of this by discovering and cataloging all available content on the Internet (web pages, PDFs, images, videos, etc.) via a process known as “crawling and indexing,” and then ordering it by how well it matches the query in a process we refer to as “ranking.”

  • Crawling is the process by which search engine “crawlers” or “spiders” travel around pages on the web to gather information about that page.
  • Indexing refers to the storing and cataloging of these pages by Google.
  • Ranking describes how Google prioritizes search results by relevance when users enter a query into the search engine.

Illustration of how search engines work in a nutshell.

But even with advanced algorithms and tactics, Google can’t effectively rank web pages without some help from humans. That’s why website owners, marketing agencies, and professional search engine optimizers use SEO.

With some targeted SEO strategies, these folks can signal to Google that a page is worth showing to a user when they search a specific term. Luckily, most of these strategies aren’t very complicated. And they can make a big impact on your visibility almost immediately.

White hat SEO and black hat SEO

A word of caution: People have tried to game Google’s ranking algorithm in the past. Most have failed. Even the ones who succeeded got caught in the end.

Today, Google is better at catching cheaters than ever before. And that’s why spammy SEO tactics, known as “black hat SEO,” no longer work.’

Comparison of white hat SEO techniques and black hat SEO techniques.

If Google catches you trying to cheat the system, you’ll be penalized in search engine results.

Your rankings will plummet, and you may even be removed from organic search results altogether.

If you’re going to engage in SEO, you should use tactics approved by Google, known as “white hat SEO.” As we go on, you can be confident that all the strategies we share in this beginner’s guide fall under the category “white hat SEO.”

One crucial thing to know before you start SEO

Before we get to the nuts and bolts of SEO, it’s important to know one very important thing:

Google bases its ranking factors on providing the best user experience.

When people come to Google to find an answer, Google wants to show them the most relevant results for their search query. So, the worst thing you can do is create content with the goal of appeasing Google.

Google wants to appease the user. That means you should, too.

When you engage in search engine optimization, it should be with the idea that you’re creating content for users first, but also trying to signal to Google that you have the most relevant content for those users. If you take one thing from this SEO guide, it should be that.

How to get Google to rank your content in 2020

Today, Google ranks content based on more than 200 factors. Not all of them are public. Here are some of the most important:

  • High quality, intent-focused content targeted to a search query
  • Backlinks (something to explain what these are)
  • Rankbrain, which makes deeper interpretations of user searches
  • Efficient site architecture that Google can crawl and index
  • Expertise (are you an expert in your subject area?)
  • Authority (are you a leader in your field?)
  • Trust (how trustworthy of a source are you?)
  • Content freshness and originality
  • CTR (click-through-rate) of your search result
  • Page speed
  • Mobile-first design

Knowing these, we can use three branches of SEO to gain more traffic through organic search.

  • On-page SEO: On-page SEO refers to the optimization of content on your website. This includes content visible to users like images, text, video, but also what’s visible to search engines only, like HTML elements and image alt text.
  • Off-page SEO: Off-page SEO is about improving signals that aren’t on your website. This kind of SEO focuses on increasing expertise, authority, and trust by building backlinks and an engaged audience.
  • Technical SEO: Technical SEO is about improving signals that only search engines look for. Schema markup, crawlability, page speed, and URL structure are all part of technical SEO.

On-page SEO strategies

Likely, most of your SEO efforts will be on-page. Not just because it’s the easiest to control, but because it has a major effect on off-page SEO, too.

A website that excels in on-page SEO will build more authority, trust, and expertise off-page. Here are the most effective ways to do it:

Execute a content marketing strategy

Everything you can read, watch, and listen to is content. Blog posts are content and so are videos and podcasts. When Google crawls and indexes your pages, it’s crawling and indexing content. Without content, you can’t rank.

The best thing your content can do is give the searcher what they want. It should also be engaging, informational, and original. And to satisfy one of Google’s biggest ranking factors — expertise — it should be related to the content you create on a regular basis. Here’s why:

When you create content around specific, related topics, you communicate to Google that you have a focus — expertise in a particular area.

For example: If you’re an SEO marketing agency, your content should be about SEO, business, marketing, agencies, teams, and related topics. If for some strange reason you were to write an article about the best SUV models for 2020, it wouldn’t gain traction from Google because the search engine knows that your expertise is in SEO. It would also make Google think twice about whether you’re an expert in SEO topics.

Sticking to related areas of content can prove to Google over time that you’re an expert in a certain subject matter. Here are a few SEO-related strategies to consider when you’re creating content:

Satisfy search intent

Intent refers to the goal of the searcher. When they enter a search query in Google, what do they want to learn? How do they want to learn it? This includes:

  • Content type: navigational, informational, transactional
  • Content format: video, blog post, guide, product page, infographic, etc.
  • Content angle: “How To,” listicle, report, recipe, checklist, etc.

Intent has always been important to satisfy, but in 2020 it is more important than ever.

Today we’re seeing less authoritative web pages focused on intent outrank more authoritative ones focused on keyword optimization.

This indicates that, in some cases, intent can actually trump other major ranking factors like authority, expertise, and trustworthiness. Here’s an example:

Let’s say you want to optimize content for the term High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

You write a comprehensive, keyword-rich piece of content called “The Ultimate Guide to High-Intensity Interval Training.”

For queries related to the broad search term “High-Intensity Interval Training,” that should rank very well, right? It’s logical to think that people searching “High-Intensity Interval Training” want to know all about HIIT.

Not true…

And you can tell from the search results.

On page one for that search query, you’ll notice that there’s only ONE “Ultimate” guide on the SERP.

A Google search results page for "high intensity interval training."

The rest are far more specific…

  • How to…
  • The benefits of…
  • HIIT for runners…

How could this be for such a broad search like “High-Intensity Interval Training”?

Google has the benefit of knowing exactly how people use its search engine. It can see that when people search “High-Intensity Interval Training,” they don’t find exactly what they’re looking for on the SERP. So, instead of clicking on a search result, users go back to the search bar and type in something more specific, like…

  • How to do high-intensity interval training
  • The benefits of high-intensity interval training
  • High-intensity interval training for runners

Therefore, Google knows that when people search “High-Intensity Interval Training,” they don’t actually want a long, comprehensive guide on the topic. What they want are more specific answers, like how to do HIIT workouts, HIIT for runners, and HIIT benefits (and Google uses human evaluators to confirm these results).

So, if your goal is to sell a HIIT workout program, traditional SEO knowledge would tell you that optimizing for a broad query like “High-Intensity Interval Training” is a good idea. And that ranking for it would require broad, high-level content, like a comprehensive guide or overview.

But, when people search “High-Intensity Interval Training,” do they really want to know all about HIIT? Or do they want something more specific, like HIIT workouts, HIIT for runners, and HIIT benefits?

Unlike Google, you don’t have the benefit of knowing exactly how searchers behave. What you do have, though, is the SERP.

When you search the term you want to optimize for, are you seeing that same broad term on the SERP? Or are you seeing more specific terms in their place? When users search “Content Marketing,” do they want a comprehensive guide to content marketing? Do they want a simple definition? Do they want to know about content marketing conferences around the world?

Looking at the SERP will help you uncover the true intent of the searcher when they search a term. And it may not be what you think it is.

Do extensive keyword research

Of course, just because SEO is more about intent than ever before doesn’t mean you can skimp on keyword research. It means that before you do extensive keyword research, you have to make sure you’re optimizing for the right search term to satisfy user intent.

Once you’ve figured out what your audience is actually looking for (Benefits of HIIT instead of the Ultimate Guide to HIIT, for example), your keyword research should reflect that topic.

Search your term like a user would and see what the top 10 results are saying. Pay attention to their headings, their title, their URL structure. Which longtail and short-tail keywords are they using? How are they using them and where are they located in the article?

Look at related searches at the bottom of the SERP, autocomplete variations, and the SERP section “People also ask…” for more ideas.

"People also ask" module on Google SERP for "high intensity interval training."

There are plenty of free keyword tools you can use to figure this out. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Reverse engineer your content. Find out what the best results are doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and make your content better.

Optimize internal links

Internal linking is the practice of linking pages on your website to other pages on your website. You’ll see this most often on blogs.

For example, if I’m writing a blog post on e-commerce SEO and I want to offer the reader the option to learn more about search engine optimization in general, I would create a link to this guide in the content. There are a few ways I can do this.

Below, pretend the underlined text is a hyperlink to this SEO guide from a blog post on e-commerce SEO.

  • Example 1: E-commerce SEO is a type of search engine optimization. Click here to learn everything about SEO in The Beginner’s Guide to SEO in 2021.
  • Example 2: E-commerce SEO is a type of search engine optimization. To learn more about SEO, read The Beginner’s Guide to SEO in 2021.
  • Example 3: E-commerce SEO is a type of search engine optimization.

In each of these examples, the hyperlinked text is what’s known as “anchor text.” Anchor text is important for SEO because it tells search engine crawlers what a linked page is about. The best anchor text is short, descriptive, and natural.

The first example is what you shouldn’t do with anchor text. This is generic and unnatural and it interrupts the user experience.

Example two, however, can work. This is known as “exact match” anchor text. It describes the linked page in the most specific way, matching its URL exactly. This can be valuable for crawlers, but if used too often, can look like you’re trying to cheat your way to higher rankings.

Example three is what you’ll encounter most often. This is known as partial match anchor text. It sums up the linked page in words that are closely related to its content without matching the title exactly. This method is the most natural, and the least likely to interrupt the user experience.

But the value of internal links extends far beyond their anchor text. Internal linking is a major part of creating an effective site architecture.

Internal links not only allow visitors to explore related concepts, but they allow crawlers to easily access other pages for indexing. Look at a site like Wikipedia. You’ll see extensive internal linking on every page.

Internal linking on Wikipedia SEO page.

Without this, crawlers may not be able to index all your pages, which means those pages will be left out of search engine results.

Another added benefit of internal linking is that it enables you to give your pages a rankings boost. When one of your pages ranks highly on SERPs, you can link it to other, lower-ranking pages to improve their ranking.

Google says to limit your links per page to a reasonable number. But keep in mind, the more links you have on a high-ranking page, the less “juice” or “equity” it can pass along to lower-ranking pages. Each page has limited power. The more links you add, the more you dilute it.

Ensure your HTML is descriptive

HTML stands for hypertext markup language, and it’s a basic building block of your content. Even if you’re creating content with a CMS like WordPress, and you don’t see the HTML in your content, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s just being automatically formatted.

When search engines crawl your content, they read your HTML — meta tags, headers, image alt text — to uncover the most important information on your page is. Here’s how to make sure they find what they’re looking for:

Create a click-worthy title tag

Your title tags specify the title of your web page. This is the most important on-page HTML signal for a search engine crawler because it summarizes what your whole page is about. And it’s also important for searchers.

When searchers see your content on a SERP, the title is what will appear in big blue title text at the top of your result. It’s the main driver of CTR, so it should be written in a compelling way that makes users want to click. Here’s an example from cognitiveSEO of a clickable, optimized title on a SERP:

Search engine result with SEO-optimized meta title.

Your title should be an accurate but short description of the page’s overall content. Include your focus keyword but don’t stuff it with others, and make sure every page title is unique.

Write a compelling and informational meta description

Your meta description is what appears below a title in search engine results. This briefly summarizes the page for crawlers so they can show it to users.

Even though the meta description is not a direct ranking factor, it contributes to a ranking factor: CTR. And you can improve CTR by writing a compelling and informational meta description.

If you want to check for any issues in your title tags or meta descriptions (if they’re too long, short, not informative enough or unlikely to satisfy search intent), you can run the “HTML Improvements” report in Google Search Console. While you’re writing, you can also use this tool for a quick preview of what it will look like.

Describe your images with image alt text

For the visually impaired, image alt text is a useful form of HTML. It describes the content of an image so screen reading software can read it aloud. You should use image alt text for this reason alone, but there are other reasons to use it, too.

Alt text will also appear in place of an unavailable image when it can’t load or isn’t published. If the image is crucial to understanding the page’s content, its alt text will provide context. 

An example of image alt text.

Last but not least, image alt text helps search engines categorize your image. Since crawlers can’t physically see images, alt text describes it to them.

This can improve image search ranking (when people search for content related to your image), and also gives you an opportunity to add your keyword to another location on the page.

An example of good and bad image alt text.

Keep your alt tags short, include a keyword if it’s relevant, but don’t overdo it.

Use header tags to categorize the content

Header tags help readers organize content. The header above, “Use headings to categorize content,” is classified as an H4 header. It’s nested under the H3 header “Ensure your HTML is descriptive,” which is nested under the H2 header “On-page SEO strategies.” Headers start broad and get more specific to indicate each is a subsection of the one above it.

What effective header and subheader structure looks like.

For search engines, crawling them is crucial to understanding what a web page is about. When crawlers find your keyword in these important organizational header tags, it says to them: “This is what the following content is about.”

Keep your headers short, include a keyword, and use them any time you transition to a new or more specific concept.

Off-page SEO strategies

Off-page SEO refers to factors off of your pages that affect your search rankings. But just because they’re off your website doesn’t mean they’re out of your control. With the right strategies, you can excel at off-page SEO as well as on-page SEO. Here are some SEO best practices for off-page initiatives:

Earn authoritative backlinks

When Google crawls your content to figure out if it’s a good match for the user’s query, it wants to make sure you’re a trustworthy source of information. One of the key ways Google evaluates your trustworthiness is through backlinks.

These are not links on your site, but links TO your site from other websites.

A backlink from website A to website B to improve SEO.

The way Google sees it, if people are linking to your content from other websites, they’re vouching for you. And the more times this happens, the more trustworthy you appear.

Then again, it’s not all about quantity. Quality also comes into play. A link to your content from the New York Times is going to be more valuable than 100 from a group of small-time bloggers.

There are a few ways you can go about earning high-quality backlinks.

High-quality content marketing

High-quality content earns backlinks. If you want people to read, watch, share your content, the best thing you can do is spend time making it as high-quality as possible. Aim for originality, comprehensiveness, and always consider the intent of the user. What do they hope to gain from your content?

Guest blogging

Google has specifically said that guest blogging for the sole purpose of earning backlinks is a spammy practice that you shouldn’t engage in. But that’s only because a lot of people tend to create lazy, worthless content just to get a link back to their site.

As long as you’re treating a guest blog as an extension of your own, and approaching it as a way to expose your brand to a new audience, guest blogging can be a perfectly legitimate way to gain authoritative backlinks.

Though some argue the tactic is no longer effective because many blogs tag guest links nofollow (to tell Google to devalue the link), Google has made it clear that nofollow links are used by crawlers and may have SEO value.

Link building

Outside of these two tactics, there’s a category of many others that refers to the practice of manually generating links to your content. It’s called link building.

Link building strategies include link reclamation, content promotion, outreach, infographics, contributing to crowdsourced content, getting listed in online directories, and many more.

Link building strategies for SEO.

Social media marketing

Social media marketing supports high-quality content marketing. Billions of people flock to social media to find content to like, read, watch, share. By maintaining an active social media presence — posting your content while interacting with other brands — you make it more likely that someone will consume your content and pass it on to their audience or a friend/colleague.

Influencer marketing

Influencers are authoritative figures with a large audience. Building partnerships with these people can mean gaining access to their audience, their network, or getting a link back to your site.

Technical SEO

On-page and off-page SEO you can do on your own with a little self-education. Technical SEO is…well…a little more technical. The help of a development team or a professional SEO is more needed here. That’s not to say you can’t do technical SEO yourself, but it may be more efficient to find some help than spend time learning it on your own. Here are some top technical SEO strategies:

Structure your data with schema markup

Think of schema markup as a labeling language. Adding this kind of code to your web pages helps search engines better understand the content on that page. It adds speed, efficiency, and accuracy to the crawling process.

For the search engine, there’s less guesswork and manual processing. In addition, schema markup can also help you add snippets to your search engine result, like reviews, carousels, and more.

A search result with deep links due to schema markup.

Use canonicalization for duplicate content

Sometimes multiple web pages will feature the same or similar content. When that happens, search engines aren’t sure which page to index.

And even though a website owner won’t be penalized for duplicate content, Google will only show one version of that content in search engine results. And it may not be the one you want.

If you’re publishing the same or highly similar content on two separate pages, you can use the canonical tag to indicate which page the search engine should index.

How the rel=canonical tag works on duplicate content.

A plugin like Yoast can help with this issue by allowing you to set a default page for the content you intend to duplicate. It will do the canonicalization for you.

Prioritize mobile search

Most web traffic comes from mobile devices. That means you shouldn’t just be optimizing your content for mobile search, but instead prioritizing it.

Google has committed to using mobile-first indexing, meaning it will actually index the mobile version of your website first. If you don’t have one, it can negatively impact your search engine rankings.

The difference between mobile-first and desktop-first indexing.

When content isn’t optimized for mobile, it hurts user experience. Content is hard to read, menu items are difficult to locate and too small to click, etc.

By now, your content and design should accommodate users on their chosen device. If it doesn’t, making your site mobile responsive should be a priority.

Improve page speed

Pages peed refers to the speed at which your page loads. And research shows that if a page doesn’t load in three seconds or less, more than 50% of users will bounce.

53% of people will leave a page if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load.

Google wants users who click a search result to get to the page immediately. So it’s important to make sure your page is as fast as possible.

Common culprits slowing page load speed are excess images and JavaScript. Cut down on your usage, consider compressing images, and think about building your page with AMP — a lightweight coding language that serves pages in an instant.

Ensure a good user experience for all audiences

Remember: Google’s priority is to serve the most relevant experiences to users. If your website serves content to people who speak multiple languages, and you have a copy in more than one language, search engines need to know.

You can communicate this to Google with the hreflang tag. Similarly, if your website serves content to users in multiple countries, you should communicate this to the search engine as well, through URL structure.

Use Robots.txt to point Google away from parts of your site

There are some pages you won’t want Google to crawl. These are pages that users will find valuable, but won’t search for in Google. When you want to point Google away from certain pages, you can use Robots.txt.

The difference between a site with robots.txt and one without.

This file type can be created by webmasters to direct search engines to allow or disallow crawling, or to crawl certain pages in certain way. According to Google, this should be used mainly to avoid overloading your site with requests.

Submit an XML sitemap to Google

An XML sitemap is a file type that webmasters can submit to Google for more efficient crawling. Essentially, it’s a list of your website’s URLs.

Normally, Google would index the pages on your website by crawling through links from page to page. But if a crawler can’t crawl a link, or you’ve failed to link all your pages, Google may miss it, which means that page gets left out of search engine results.

An XML sitemap says to crawlers: “Here are the important pages you should crawl, and here’s how to get there.”

SEO optimized XML sitemap.

Create an SEO-friendly URL structure

For a URL to be SEO-friendly, it should be easy for crawlers to find and process, and easy users to understand.

Keep your URL short, keep it the structure simple (1-2 folders), and include one to two keywords. If you have the option, use subfolders instead of a subdomain because Google may view a subdomain as a separate website, which will split your ranking power between two entities.

Additionally, make sure you’re using SSL (secure socket layer) protection to keep your visitors safe from online malware threats. Google has confirmed that HTTPS is a positive ranking signal, and Chrome will even alert visitors if in the address bar if your site is not secure.

"Chrome not secure" error message.

Win more profitable traffic with intent SEO

Search engines are an immense source of traffic. But not just any traffic…

People who go to search engines are specifically looking for help. And with SEO, you can help them find answers, and win more customers as you do.

Want to find out how you’re doing with SEO? Get an instant SEO audit below. Or, schedule a free consultation to see how intent SEO can generate 700% more profitable traffic.