Learning the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) is the first step to getting quality traffic to your website that converts.

In fact, 60% of marketers say that inbound (SEO, blog content, etc) is their highest quality source of leads. What’s more, SEO leads have an impressive 14.6% close rate.

Here are the SEO basics you need to know to start driving organic business growth today.

What is SEO and why is it important?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a method of optimizing a website to improve its visibility in search engines. When someone searches a term related to your business in an engine like Google, Yahoo, or Bing, SEO helps your web pages appear higher on search engine results pages, allowing you to draw more potential customers to your website.

SEO can be broken into 3 categories:

  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO
  • Technical SEO

On-page SEO concerns the elements on a page on your website—headings, subheadings, and other pieces of content—that you can control. For example, ensuring that a page on your website is optimized for a keyword phrase is on-page SEO.

Off-page SEO concerns elements on other websites—like links from other websites or brand mentions—that you can’t directly control. For example, the number of links from other websites to a page on your website is off-page SEO.

Technical SEO concerns the infrastructure of your website and is focused on making a website as user-friendly as possible. For example, making your web pages load faster is an aspect of technical SEO.

SEO matters because it’s one of the most effective ways of getting organic traffic (traffic you don’t pay for) to your website. When executed properly, SEO increases organic traffic, increases qualified leads, and ultimately, increases conversions and growth. For small business owners and enterprise site owners alike, SEO is one of the most effective long-term digital marketing strategies for driving sustainable traffic and revenue.

How is SEO different from PPC?

In the context of search engine marketing, pay-per-click (PPC) is where you create an ad, run it on Google, and then pay a fee each time someone clicks on the ad.

With PPC, you’re creating an advertisement, and then each time someone clicks on that advertisement, you pay a fee that can range from several cents to a few dollars, with some terms costing several hundred per click.

To determine how effective that ad is, the number of impressions (how many times a searcher saw your ad) and the number of clicks (how many times someone clicked on your ad) is looked at. The number of clicks divided by the number of impressions is your click-through rate (CTR).

For example, on a search engine results page (SERP), you usually see paid results above the “organic” results (organic meaning the creator of the content isn’t paying any money to show up at the position they’re ranking for on that SERP).A search engine results page showing the basic difference between SEO and PPC.In the image, you can see an advertisement for the target keyword phrase, “what is SEO.” Semrush created that ad. Each time someone clicks that link, Semrush pays a fee.

In contrast, the next result is organic. Search Engine Land does not pay a fee each time that link is clicked.

The difference between SEO and pay-per-click is that SEO is designed to get traffic for “free” (without directly spending money on an ad to get traffic to your website), while PPC is designed to get traffic by directly spending money.

That’s not to say that SEO tactics are always free, but rather, you’re not spending money on the traffic itself. For example, unless you’re able to implement all SEO tactics yourself, you might need to pay an SEO consultant to help you optimize your content and your website, or you might need to pay for SEO tools, like Clearscope, Ubersuggest, or Yoast.

With PPC, you’re spending money for each click on an ad—for each visitor.

White hat SEO vs black hat SEO

White hat SEO refers to using tactics that adhere to search engine guidelines to get traffic to your website. These kinds of tactics generally take a lot of work upfront to implement, and it can be a few months to a year before you start to see results.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, black hat SEO is the practice of violating those guidelines to get traffic to your website with tactics that are meant to trick the Google algorithm.

Black hat SEO tactics can usually be implemented quickly and result in quick wins while ignoring search engine guidelines. Black hat SEO tactics manipulate loopholes in search engine algorithms to quickly get a web page to rank highly in search results. They provide a poor user experience and, in the long run, can get your website banned by search engines.

For example, one black hat SEO tactic is to stuff a page with keywords while providing little value on the page itself. If you search for the phrase, “what is SEO,” and find a page that doesn’t answer the question in-depth, but rather just includes the phrase “what is SEO” over and over (keyword stuffing), there’s little value for the searcher. This is a poor user experience because the user isn’t getting the information they were looking for (low value). This is a black hat tactic.

An example of a white hat SEO technique is just the opposite. A web page for that same keyword phrase can answer the question in-depth, maybe as a beginner’s guide to SEO. While that same keyword phrase might show up a number of times, the content is valuable—it answers the user’s question and then goes in-depth to give the searcher information that expands on the topic.

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

(Image source)

White hat SEO is usually associated with high-quality content marketing. Content marketing is the practice of creating useful, valuable content that’s designed to answer a specific search query. It’s a white hat SEO strategy that follows search engine guidelines and provides a good user experience.

How do search engines work?

Search engines consider a number of ranking factors to determine how high a piece of content should appear on a SERP when people search for a specific search query.

There are several hundred ranking factors that Google, Bing, and other search engines consider. These ranking factors include on-page, off-page, and technical SEO considerations.

Here are a few examples of ranking factors:

  • How fast your website loads
  • If your keyword phrase appears in your title tag and header tags
  • How long your content is
  • How many times the keyword appears in your content
  • How old your web page is
  • How many links from other web pages (backlinks) your web page has
  • How many nofollow links you have on your page
  • How your content appears on mobile devices
  • If you’re consistently creating quality content
  • The overall usability of your website

To find your content in the first place, search engines perform a task known as crawling.

Crawling is when a search engine sends out a robot known as a crawler across the internet to find pieces of content (web pages like homepages, product pages, and even landing pages) that it might show to a searcher on a SERP.

For your content to be found in the first place, a crawler must discover it. Once the crawler finds your content, determines that it hasn’t been created using black hat tactics, and determines that it might answer a search query for a searcher, it then indexes the content.

Indexing is when the crawler adds your content to a search engine’s index, which is just a database that a search engine creates of all available content that it might serve to a searcher who inputs search terms.

In general, Google, Bing, and other search engines are considering on-page efforts, off-page efforts, and technical SEO efforts. Simply, they’re looking for great content, high-quality backlinks, and the proper technical optimizations that result in a good user experience for a searcher.

Once your content is indexed, you can end up with a search listing on a SERP. A search listing is the position of your content on a SERP.

SEO basics of how search engines work.

In this image, Yoast has the number 1 search listing, and Moz has the number 2 and 3 search listing. These pages are ranked in descending order of value based on Google’s many ranking factors. The number one listing on page one is what Google considers to be the most valuable to the searcher, the number two listing is considered the second-most valuable, and so on.

On-page SEO basics

There are a number of on-page SEO tactics that you can employ to show search engines like Google and Bing that your content is worth being given a high search listing for your target keyword.

Let keyword research guide you

Keyword research is the process of using keyword tools like Moz, Ahrefs, or KWFinder to find keyword phrases that you want to target. This depends heavily on your industry and your goals.

For example, if you have an ecommerce store that sells dolls and doll products, you’ll want to target keyword phrases related to dolls.

To find the right keyword phrase, you need to balance the difficulty of ranking for a keyword phrase with the traffic that keyword phrase can bring to your website.

For our doll example, since you sell doll products (like dollhouses and accessories), it would make sense for you to write an article on how to build dolls or dollhouses.

Keyword research dashboard showing search volume, CPC, and other metrics.

But if you look at these keywords, you can see that the search volume for “how to build a doll” is low, especially compared to the search volume for “how to build a dollhouse.” They’re both long-tail keywords, but one has much higher search volume than the other.

What you choose to target is up to you. If you don’t sell products related to dollhouses, even though it has a high search volume, you might not want to target it. Whatever content you create should be related to your industry, what you sell, and what kind of content your audience expects you to create.

Create valuable content

Valuable content is content that answers a searcher’s query completely. It satisfies search intent.

Search intent is the goal of a user when they put a query into a search engine. For example, someone who searches for “dollhouses for sale” intends to buy a dollhouse. Someone who searches for “how to build a dollhouse” intends to make a dollhouse on their own.

For the first query, you might want to create a list of the best dollhouses on the market. For the second query, you likely want to create a beginner’s guide to building a dollhouse.

The four types of search intent: Navigational, informational, transactional, and commercial.

When you have satisfied search intent, you will have “closed the loop.” What’s “the loop”?

It’s when a searcher clicks a search result from the SERP, doesn’t find what they’re looking for on the next page, then returns to the SERP to click another result. The searcher will keep doing this until they find what they’re looking for. This is the loop.

Closing the loop means that the searcher sees your search result on the SERP, clicks through to your website, finds the answer they want, and then leaves without returning to the SERP. It signals to Google that your content was comprehensive enough to fulfill the searcher’s intent, and it may warrant ranking your content higher.

Write compelling meta titles and descriptions

Meta titles and meta descriptions make up search engine listings. In the photo, each listing is made up of a meta title and meta description. The blue link is the meta title. The black text below is the meta description.

A SERP showing the meta title and meta description of pages for doll houses.A meta title is the title you tell search engines to display with an HTML tag, a content management system, or using tools plugins Yoast. This is in contrast to the actual title of the web page itself.

For example, you might have an article titled “8 Critical Materials You Need to Build a Doll House.” But if the keyword you’re targeting is “how to build a doll house,” you might have a meta title that puts the keyword phrase in the beginning, like “How to Build a Doll House — 8 Critical Materials You Need.”

Writing a good meta title requires a combination of satisfying search intent and making a title interesting enough to get a click. It also includes the keyword phrase.

A good meta description expands on the title and tells the searcher what kind of content they’re going to get when they click. A good meta description includes the target keyword phrase.

Your meta title should be between 50 and 60 characters while your meta description should be between 155 and 165 characters.

Optimize your images

Your images affect your page load speed, so they should be as small as possible without compromising quality. Also consider compressing your images to keep them as small and easy to load as they can be.

And don’t forget to optimize your alt text and file names. Alt text is the text that a screen reader reads when someone cannot view an image. This text also shows up when an image doesn’t load properly. Alt text should include the target keyword phrase and should be a full sentence, like, “A dollhouse being built by two men.”

File names should include the target keyword, with each word separated by dashes, and should be as short as possible but still descriptive.

Internally link your content

Internal links help search engines like Google and Bing to understand how your content is related. They’re important for several reasons.

The first reason is that they help crawlers to discover content on your website, especially new content. You’ll always want to link to new content when possible from old content to help search engines discover it. Linking to older content from newer content is also important, as it can help new readers discover articles, posts, and pages you published a long time ago.

Links also pass on search equity. Search equity is the authority that a search engine assigns to a web page. For example, if your homepage has been linked to many times from other websites, Google sees this page as having authority because other websites trust the content.

If you then link from the homepage to other pages on your website, Google is going to pass some of that authority on to those other pages. In the image, you can see how links from the supporting pages indicate to Google that the central page is an important page on the website.

Diagram that shows one piece of pillar content linked to several pieces of topic cluster content.

Internal links also provide a good user experience. They help searchers to find more of your content and learn more about your topic. You’ll need good anchor text to help searchers understand what a link is about. Anchor text is the text of the link. Good anchor text is short, explanatory, and helps a reader to clearly understand what the linked page is about.

Organize your content with headers

Headers divide your text into scannable chunks. Because many searchers will be looking for a specific piece of information in your content, they will need to be able to scan the text to find it.

Not all searchers will use your content in this way, but even for them, content that is more organized by topic will be easier to read and understand because headers organize concepts within the content.

When you’re able to identify and learn each concept, you’re then able to understand how it applies to the next concept. This allows content to build on itself throughout an article.

As far as SEO is concerned, each header has significance to search engines. Search engines look at the title tag and/or H1 to try to figure out what the content is about. When a keyword phrase in an H1 matches a search query, then it’s more likely to be served to the searcher.

H2s also play a role in helping search engines to understand your content, though they’re not ranked as importantly as your H1/title tag. When search engines see a keyword phrase in an H2, they understand that this section of content is about that search term. The same goes for other headers, like H3s and H4s, too. These help search engines understand the overall aim of your article.

Off-page SEO basics

As mentioned before, off-page SEO concerns elements on other websites that you can’t directly control. Essentially, it’s the process of getting other websites/web pages to link to your page.

There are a number of strategies you can use to generate links.

Use link-building strategies

There are strategies you can use to earn links back to your website, which will improve your authority and trustworthiness to Google. A few white hat link-building strategies include:

  • Searching for websites in your industry that have related content, looking for broken links in their content, and then recommending your content to replace those broken links.
  • Finding directories of businesses in your industry or in your area (think chambers of commerce), contacting the webmasters who run their website, and asking for a link to your website to be included
  • Writing guest blog posts for websites in your industry, appearing on podcasts or YouTube videos with influencers in your industry, and asking them to include a link to your website

Share your content to social media

Sharing your content to social media helps spread your content to a new audience, especially if it gets shared by influencers.

To get your content in front of new audiences, you can use tactics like hashtagging your content or sharing it in a private message to influencers and asking them to share it with their audience.

This can create opportunities for backlinks. If an influencer likes your content, they may link to it on their website.

That being said, social links are not considered backlinks themselves. Social media is not a ranking factor, but rather a method to get traffic to your content and, hopefully, inspire someone to link to that content from their content.

Partner with other brands

As mentioned before, guest blogging is a great way to earn legitimate backlinks and is a recognized white hat SEO tactic.

Find other brands in your industry who you can work with. Exchange guest blog posts with each other. Promote each other on social media. This may not only lead to the opportunity for backlinks, but it can also be an opportunity to partner together on revenue-generating work.

For example, if a website company has built a relationship with an SEO company, and they get a client who needs SEO help, they’re more likely to turn to that SEO company for help than to go find someone else.

Use local SEO

Local SEO is, “the practice of optimizing your website for a specific local area.” If you do business in a specific area, local SEO can help your customers in that area find you more easily.

There’s a lot to local SEO, but some local SEO basics include creating your Google My Business profile and getting as many reviews on Google, Facebook, Yelp, and other websites as possible.

Technical SEO basics

Depending on the content management system (CMS) you use, ensuring that you have done everything you can to satisfy search engine’s technical SEO requirements may be as simple as installing the right plugins to your WordPress website.

However, it’s important that you understand the reasons why you need to install certain plugins. Here are the reasons that underpin the plugins or strategies you use to satisfy technical SEO requirements.

Make sure Google can index your site

There are a number of ways to make sure that Google can index your website. This is crucial because, if your website does not show up in Google’s index, your content will not be shown to searchers no matter how good it is.

Basically, what you’re doing is removing any blocks that might keep Google from indexing your site while also ensuring that Google can find your website in the first place.

Here’s one simple way to ask Google to index your site:

  1. Go to Google Search Console
  2. Navigate to the URL inspection tool
  3. Paste the URL you’d like Google to index into the search bar.
  4. Wait for Google to check the URL
  5. Click the “Request indexing” button

The process is pretty complex, so check out this guide on how to get your site indexed.

Show Google where your pages are

One way to help Google understand where your pages are and how they are related is to submit your XML sitemap to Google through Google Search Console.

To create an XML sitemap, you can use a number of plugins (if you’re using a CMS like WordPress), such as Yoast.

There are also free XML sitemap generation tools, like XML-Sitemaps.com. These are like maps to your content for search engine crawlers, which can ensure that none of your content gets missed and left out of Google.

Tell Google which pages shouldn’t be crawled

According to Google, “a ‘robots.txt’ file tells search engines whether they can access and therefore crawl parts of your site.”

Google says that there may be pages on your site that have no use for your users, and that therefore you wouldn’t want Google to crawl. You might also have pages on your site that you only want to be accessed after a user pays a fee or signs up for your email list. You can use the robots.txt file to ensure these pages don’t show up on Google to keep users from getting that content for free.

Design for mobile-friendliness

Mobile websites are indexed first by Google over the desktop version of your website, so the mobile version of your website needs to be high-quality. This means that the website loads quickly on mobile; has reasonably sized, readable text; and has images that are high quality without making the website load slowly.

Add structured data markup

Schema is, “a semantic vocabulary of tags (or microdata) that you can add to your HTML to improve the way search engines read and represent your page in SERPs.” Essentially, it’s a labeling languages.

Schema helps search engines to understand what your content is about so that it can better serve the content to users. For example, schema can help Google to understand the difference between text and reviews or testimonials. Though Google may eventually figure this out on its own, schema ensures that it can understand this right away, and therefore serve the content to the right people more quickly.

Create useful 404 pages

Your 404 page is the page your users go to when they input a URL and that URL doesn’t exist. Most 404 pages aren’t very useful—they don’t help the user to find the content they want. When your user lands on a 404 page, it can be confusing and frustrating, so your page should be focused on getting them to where they were trying to go in the first place, whether the error was on your end or theirs.

Consider including a search bar on your 404 pages so that users can find the content they’re looking for more easily. You might also want to include a list of some of the most important content on your website so that users can scan through existing URLs. Or even consider including a sitemap.

Optimize page speed

Page speed is a ranking factor, and an important one. The faster your website loads, the better. The reason Google prioritizes page speed so highly is that it provides a good user experience. Every additional second that a page takes to load increases page abandonment.

There are a number of things you can do to improve page load speed:

  • Sign up for a content delivery network (CDN) like Cloudflare
  • Compress your images and size them appropriately
  • Remove redirects whenever possible
  • Use a caching plugin
  • Sign up for fast web hosting

Create an effective site hierarchy

Site hierarchy helps Google to understand more effectively how all your content is related. Creating site hierarchy can be done a number of ways.

If you’re using a CMS like WordPress, you can use features like tags and categories to help Google understand both which content is more or less important and which content is related to other pieces of content.

Here’s an example of an effective site hierarchy.

Diagram showing levels of folders and subfolders in a shallow but organized site hierarchy.

A hierarchy also helps users to find content more easily on your website. This is especially helpful in menus. Menus that are easily broken down into categories will allow users to find the content they’re looking for if they want to learn more.

Create SEO-friendly URLs

URLs should be short and should include keywords. A good example would be www.yoursite.com/blog/how-to-build-a-doll-house/

This includes the entire keyword phrase that you’re targeting, yet it’s short enough and simple enough to help a reader quickly understand what the content is about.

SEO-friendly URLs also help crawlers. Including the keyword phrase helps a crawler to understand what your content is about so it can serve it to the right searchers.

Use the canonical tag for duplicate content

When you have duplicate content on your website, Google can struggle to understand which piece of content it should index.

There are a number of reasons why you might have duplicate content on your website – like the same product in two different website categories, for example – so you need to help Google understand which piece of content to index and which to ignore. You can do this by applying the canonical tag to the piece of content you want Google to crawl and index. Even though Google can ultimately choose to ignore your tag if it believes it’s been used incorrectly, the search engine will take it into account when it’s indexing your pages.

Arm yourself with SEO tools

There are a number of SEO tools available that help you to do everything from build backlinks and optimize your content for search to ensuring the technical aspects of your website are working as they should.

Some popular tools include:

  • Yoast—a WordPress plugin that helps you optimize your content for keywords, adjust technical SEO settings, generate an XML sitemap, and more.
  • Semrush—Semrush is an all-in-one SEO tool that allows you to do keyword research, find opportunities for backlinks, and more.
  • KWFinder—a reasonably priced SEO tool that helps you understand what websites are linking to your website, research keywords, and more.
  • Moz—Moz is another all-in-one tool that was created by SEO expert Rand Fishkin.
  • Clearscope—Clearscope is a powerful tool that helps you develop content that’s designed to satisfy user intent.

There are far more SEO tools you can use to improve your rankings faster. Here are some more.

Get a complimentary SEO audit

Even the basics of SEO can be extremely complex. Learning about SEO is a long-term process and requires dedication to researching how SEO works and how SEO is changing year by year. Ultimately, though, SEO is worth it.

Whether you learn it yourself, or hire an SEO expert to do it for you, SEO is a digital marketing tactic unlike any other. It’s sustainable, reliable, and it’s perhaps the only strategy that can deliver compounding ROI with relatively little long-term maintenance.

Want to see how you’re doing with SEO? Get an instant SEO audit below. Or, schedule a free consultation to see how intent SEO can boost search traffic revenue by 700%.