What is SEO? A Practical Beginner’s Guide

If you want people to find you online, optimising your site to be visible in search is crucial. But the seemingly mysterious art of getting search engines to rank you higher – as well as the incredible pace at which technology progresses – leaves many scratching their heads.

The more you know about search engine optimisation (SEO), the more opportunity you have to boost your online presence. And for the most part, SEO fixes are relatively inexpensive.

So let’s explore what exactly SEO is and take a look at a few best practices.

What is SEO?

Think back to the last time you searched for something online. Chances are that the links at the top of the results page stood out most to you. In fact, Advanced Web Ranking stats show that the rate at which people click through drops off significantly after the first three results! It therefore makes sense that companies want to rank as highly as possible when someone types in a relevant search term.

On the flip side of the coin, search engines like Google and Bing want to provide a quality service, which means helping searchers find what they’re looking for as quickly and efficiently as possible. So, they look at numerous factors to judge the objective quality of each webpage and rank it in search results accordingly.

SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is the practice of maintaining your website in a way that’s in keeping with these preferred factors, with a view to ranking as high as possible for relevant search terms.

Though the precise rules that search engines use to make ranking decisions are closely guarded, many general SEO practices are common knowledge. So let’s explore a few…

Balloons being held up in the share of Search Engine Optimisation

Basic SEO Best Practices

Clear, Original Text

Search engines love to see clearly written text that answers a searcher’s question without fuss. Use clear, direct language that is error-free and easy to understand. One rule of thumb to stay aware of is the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score which assesses how complex a piece of text is.

Your text also needs to be totally original. Search engines generally penalise pages where large swathes of text have been duplicated verbatim from elsewhere. But be aware that it’s generally alright to quote relevant statistics, well-known sayings, and use common turns of phrase.

Mobile Responsive Design

Now that over half of searches worldwide are performed on a mobile device, it stands to reason that search engines now prioritise sites that look good and function well on smartphones. There are a number of ways to achieve this but a popular and relatively simple way method is through “responsive web design”.

Responsive design works by loading the same design elements regardless of device, but displaying them differently depending on the window/screen size being used. If you’re unsure whether your site is mobile responsive, one good way to find out is to run it through Google’s Mobile-Friendliness Test.

Site Speed

Nowadays, we expect a prompt answer following a web search; in fact, 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load (Source: Kissmetrics). Not only do these “bounces” drive visits away but they can signal to search engines that people aren’t finding that page useful. This may cause it to rank lower down in future. Therefore, it’s really worth having a site that loads and responds quickly.

There are a number of things that could slow your site down, including large file sizes, slow hosting, and coding/fetching errors. Thankfully, Google have provided another free tool – PageSpeed Insights – to help pinpoint specific speed issues.

HTTPS/SSL Hosting

HTTP is a widely used method of transferring data over the internet – known as a protocol. However for a few years now, Google has been encouraging website owners to move across to hosting that uses HTTPS (the secure version of HTTP) for the added security that it provides to site visitors.

Historically HTTPS was typically only used when transferring sensitive information online, but thanks to Google’s input it’s becoming the norm for all sites at all times. Adoption of HTTPS has been a minor ranking signal since 2014, but Google’s focus has increased since then. Google’s Chrome browser even flags non-HTTPS pages as unsafe to visitors as they enter a site. SEO aside – that’s a surefire way to turn people away!

Backlinks

As well as gauging a page’s content and set up, search engines also look at a number of “off-page” signals too. One notable off-page signal is how many websites link to yours, called “backlinks”.

Unfortunately, not all backlinks are created equal. Search crawlers also take into account how much authority the linking site has; for example, a backlink from the BBC website (a popular site that has been around for a long time) will vastly outweigh a link from a site with virtually no visitors which was set up last week.

Appropriate Keyword Density

Before search engines had such complex algorithms, people would try to game the system by “stuffing” their webpages full of relevant key phrases in order to rank. This was a cheap tactic… but it worked!

Doing this nowadays is considered very spammy and most search engines will penalise you considerably if they feel you’re cramming too many instances of a similar keyword in to a single webpage. At the time of writing, Yoast SEO state that the ideal keyword density is around 0.5-3%. You can calculate the keyword density of any webpage or piece of text using SEOBook’s Keyword Density Checker.

Engaging, Keyword-Rich Metadata

However you don’t just need to optimise the text that’s immediately visible on your site, you need to think about each page’s title tag and meta description too. They’re both great places for short, keyword-rich (but not stuffed) summaries of each page in question.

A page’s title tag should be around 50-60 characters and usually gets displayed as a blue link in search results. Meta descriptions are a little longer, around 150-160 characters, and are usually displayed as grey text underneath each search result. The benefits of a good title and meta description are two-fold; not only do search engines use this information to help rank each page, but they’re also visible to human users in search – enabling them to judge your fitness for their query. In a way, writing compelling metadata is a balancing act between appealing to man and machine.

Further Reading: SEO for Images: How to Optimise your Website’s Alt Text

Voice Search Queries

This last one isn’t a ranking signal per se, but it’s a practice that’s well worth being aware of as you optimise your site. You may have noticed over the past few years that search engines like Google can provide a direct answer to a query in a small box that appears above the rest of the search results. This is called an “answer box” and it’s generally also the answer given when performing a search using a voice-operated device such as a Google Home or Amazon Echo.

When we use voice commands, we tend to do so in longer, naturally flowing sentences when compared to typed searches. Therefore as smart speakers and the like continue to grow in popularity, it may be worth optimising for longer keyphrases – especially full questions with short succinct answers. This way you stand a chance of being picked out by smart devices when a searcher’s need arises.

So which of these SEO practices are you already using? Are there any listed here that you’re going to put on your to-do list? Let us know in the comments. And if you need any help bringing your SEO plans to fruition, OLCO Design are here to help!

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