The Ultimate SEO Guide For Anyone Who Finally Wants To Understand How It Works
Discover everything from basic SEO strategy to advanced tips that will help you boost your ranking - based on research and experience
The goal of SEO, or search engine optimisation, is to make your website easily findable via Google or other search engines by getting your website or page on top of the search engine results page, like this:
While this sounds simple, SEO is a mystery to many, even those who’ve been exploring it for years.
The difficulty with SEO is that best practices keep evolving. While putting your keywords and its synonyms all over your article used to be a solid strategy, now it’s more important than ever to make your website user-friendly. You need to give your searchers exactly what they’re looking for.
In this guide, we’ll explore how to do that, and how to improve other SEO aspects like page speed and website structure.
What is SEO? (and what is it not?)
SEO often gets a bad reputation because the best practices from years ago had search engines in mind, not people.
Do you remember trying to find a recipe but finding a personal story, history and other nonsense instead of the ingredients and instructions?
That’s because long content with lots of keywords used to rank better.
Fortunately, these days are long gone. Now, the best-ranking content is the one that keeps the user in mind. It should be credible, relevant and usable. And that’s why finding a recipe should now be a lot easier than a few years ago.
Another misconception with SEO is the way it’s measured. Of course, when your goal is to make your website findable, it’s easy to start measuring traffic, how many pages rank in the first position, etc.
But what you should really measure is how it impacts your business. Does it lead to more customers, downloads or revenue?
Search and user intent at the centre of your SEO
What are the types of search intent?
Depending on the source, there are three to five types of search intent:
The role of keywords in SEO
While putting in all of the right keywords—as many times as possible—is a thing of the past, you can still optimise your efforts with the right knowledge about keywords.
Keyword tools give you lots of ideas about what people are searching for. And putting these terms in strategic places will help you rank better.
How to find the right keywords?
If you’re reading this, it’s fair for me to assume you’re pretty new to SEO. This means you have no chance at all to make your website visible for competitive keywords like “marketing” or “marketing course”. With visible I mean a top 3 result, but even top 10 will be a longshot.
And I don’t say this because you don’t have the skills. I’m saying this because these positions in the search engine results page are taken by brands that have been following SEO best practices for years. It’s just impossible to do better than them with a new website or new SEO effort.
Instead of targeting these difficult keywords, you have to dig deeper. Keyword tools can help you identify keywords with lower search volume and lower competition. But don’t worry about this.
One page can still easily get hundreds of visitors because it can rank for many related terms.
Where to place keywords?
You need to place your keywords in strategic positions. Luckily, many WordPress plugins like Yoast can help you with this.
From my experience, and what everyone else says, these are the places that matter:
- In your title (preferably at the start
- In the first line or paragraph of your article
- In subtitles (h2 and h3 tags)
- In the body, but not more than 1 or 2% of your total words)
- In the url of your page (short, and no _ but – to separate words)
- In the meta-description of your page (use 135-160 characters)
- In image names and alt descriptions
You can even take this a step further and add the words to the image. Google is smart enough to understand text from images and audio. It can even identify objects in your images.
Finally, remember to use similar keywords and synonyms. You should place these in your subtitles and try to repeat them in the first line of the following paragraph.
Some tools to find keywords and content ideas
- Keywords Everywhere
- Keyword Tool Dominator
- Wordstream Keyword Tool
- Keyword Surfe
- Google Trends
- Google Keyword Planner>
- Google Suggestions and Google Related Searches
Keep in mind, however, that the search volume shown by these SEO tools is an approximation. You can never know exactly what people are searching for and how many times a keyword will show up. The only exact data is what you get from Google Search Console. But we’ll dive into this later.
The role of competitor research in SEO
Competitor research is helpful to find new keyword ideas but also to optimise existing pages.
If your competitor’s website is the first result, they must be doing something right. Find out what.
- What’s the length of their content?
- Where do they put keywords?
- What questions do they answer?
- How many links do they have?
What you do after the research is even more important. You don’t want to copy the strategy. Instead, you want to do better. Make it more detailed, add your own research or approach it from a better angle.
The ins and outs of links
Putting the right keywords in place is only a small part of the job. It means search engines can understand what your page or website is about. But there are so many other pages about the same subject. So search engines need to know who gives the best information.
One way to determine this is through analysing how users experience your website; another is via links. If you get lots of links from trustworthy websites, search engines believe you must have something meaningful to say.
But links from other websites aren’t the only ones that matter. In fact, internal links are probably more important. It’s possible to rank without external links but I don’t believe a website without internal links is scalable. So let’s explore that first.
Creating an internal linking structure
Internal links are important for several reasons:
- For users and search engines to easily find all your pages
- For the authority that is given to your homepage from external links to flow to other pages*
- For users to spend more time on your website
When you link articles to each other, you’re showing search engines that these articles are related. In other words, you’re showing that you’ve got a lot to say about a topic, making your website more authoritative on that topic.
*When someone links to your website, we call this a backlink. Backlinks give your website authority. (More about this in the section about backlinks.) Now, when that authority arrives on your homepage, you want it to spread to other pages of your website. SEOs call this link juice. With a clear website structure, all your important pages will get a similar amount of link juice. Sluuurp.
How to organise your content for clear internal linking?
There are a few ways to organise your content. You can do it at random, but some pages may be many clicks away from your homepage and others will be left without links altogether.
It’s better to use an organised structure with pillar pages and cluster pages. Pillar pages are high-level pages and cluster pages explore subtopics of these pillar pages.
The easiest way to organise your website is with a top-down silo. Your homepage links to the pillar pages, your pillar pages link to the cluster pages, and your cluster pages link back to the homepage.
This way, you’re “closing the loop”. This is important so search engines don’t come to a dead end when crawling your website.
A reverse silo uses the same approach as the top-down silo but your cluster pages also lead back to the pillar page and the pillar pages link back to the homepage. This adds more links, and thus more structure but also more complexity to manage.
A priority silo, finally, uses the reverse silo approach, but some pillar pages and cluster pages will also link to pages from other topic clusters. By linking more to certain high-priority pages, you’re leading more people to those pages and you’re also showing search engines these are more important pages.
Whichever approach you choose, make sure every page has at least one internal link. This makes sure there are no dead ends and your link juice keeps flowing.
How to use outbound links?
Outbound links get less attention than internal links or backlinks. Their influence isn’t as weighted as a clean internal linking structure and high-level backlinks. According to some myths, they might even harm your search performance, but as this outbound link study by Reboot shows, they do make a positive impact.
In short, you should include outbound links and they should link to relevant websites. Google suggests these links should be natural. If you link to your sources, that won’t be a problem. What you may want to avoid is linking to a direct competitor and using your keyword in that anchor text.
How Many Outbound Links Should You Include?
Clients I’ve worked with typically expect at least one. The consensus among SEOs seems to be 2 to 4 Outbound links per 1000 words, however.
Some are afraid more backlinks might be seen as spam and harm your rankings. However, when your links are all relevant, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. (One of my best-ranking pages has 8 outbound links for 1300 words.)
Good to know: Regular outbound links have a “follow” tag. It’s good practice to make affiliate links or other links that may benefit you financially, “nofollow” or “sponsored” links. You can do this with HTML like this: rel=”nofollow” or just tick the “nofollow” box in WordPress.
Why Should You Include Outbound Links?
Outbound links show topic relevance. By linking to websites that talk about similar topics, search engines can better understand your website and link you to that topic. Moreover, when you link to authoritative sources, it’s a sign that you are familiar with your topic and so it benefits your authority (or EAT).
Additionally, outbound links to more in-depth websites or sources help your readers. And if one thing should be clear from the first part of this guide, it has to be that helping your readers is at the core of SEO.
Based on this sole statement, we can debunk the most common outbound link myth: “linking to other websites is like spilling your link juice.”
And that’s bullshit—pardon my french—even some experienced SEOs still believe. But just imagine that linking to other websites would be harmful to yours… No one would use outbound links. So no one would get backlinks. And getting backlinks to your website is one of the main SEO drivers. We’ll talk about that now.
The importance of incoming links or “backlinks”
Backlinks, or links from other websites to your website, are probably the most talked-about type of links. I’d even dare to say they’re quite notorious for a couple of reasons. It’s hard to get quality backlinks and that’s why many pay for a high load of lower-quality backlinks.
Nevertheless, when it comes to backlinks, quality beats quantity. And Google might even punish you for buying low-quality backlinks.
But why do backlinks matter?
Backlinks are proof that your content is of high quality. People link back to your website because you’re an authority and/or because you offer in-depth content.
They’re actually so important that it’s near-impossible to rank for a big keyword without backlinks. Some of my pages rank well without backlinks, but the search volume for the main keyword doesn’t exceed 100/month. If you’re trying to rank for competitive keywords like “Best SEO tool”, you’re lost without backlinks.
What Are Quality Backlinks?
How To Get Backlinks?
- Adding backlinks
- Asking for backlinks
- Earning backlinks
- Buying backlinks
You can start getting some backlinks by adding them yourself—to directories and social media accounts. I’m thinking of Google My Business, Facebook, local business directories and so on.
As anyone can add these links, logically, they don’t have much value. But they won’t do any harm either and at the very least, they may direct some people to your website.
A slightly more advanced strategy is to syndicate your content. This means republishing your content on websites like LinkedIn, Medium and Tealfeed.
This gives you the opportunity to try a different headline but Google typically doesn’t show two pages with the same content. That’s why they recommend “it is helpful to ensure that each site on which your content is syndicated includes a link back to your original article. You can also ask those who use your syndicated material to use the “noindex” tag to prevent search engines from indexing their version of the content.” Because you want to make sure your website ranks and not another page.
Finally, you can create videos and infographics and add these to YouTube, Pinterest and smaller directories as well as your website. This has a double benefit:
- A new specific backlink
- The opportunity to be found on YouTube and Pinterest, which are also considerable search engines
The second easiest strategy is buying backlinks.
If you run your own website, you might get some spammy comments from time to time. The website b2stats sound familiar?
It’s highly likely they paid to get millions of backlinks from comments on other websites. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these backlinks are pretty useless.
However, there are better ways to buy backlinks. You can hire companies to earn backlinks for you. Or you can earn them yourself…
The best way to earn backlinks is by creating high-quality content. When you create something so good that people want to share it, you’ll get backlinks naturally. If we follow Google’s logic, these should be the most valuable backlinks, especially when an important website links to your website.
Don’t forget to add share buttons so it’s easy for people to share your page via social media or email.
Another way to earn backlinks is by creating original content. Instead of citing sources, do your own research. When someone wants to write about that topic in the future, they might link back to your results.
Finally, you can earn backlinks just by being an authority. For example, I’ve linked to Eli Schwartz’ book. His book is of high quality but I wouldn’t have read it if he weren’t an SEO authority.
Another way to get these types of authority backlinks is by appearing on podcasts, doing other types of interviews, or giving quotes for articles. Via Help a Reporter Out, for example.
But even if you are an authority, do original research or create high-quality content, the backlinks won’t always come naturally. Sometimes, you’ve just got to ask.
Asking for backlinks
If you believe you’ve got something of value to offer, there’s no harm in asking, right?
There are plenty of ways to ask for backlinks and some require more effort than others. Here are some ideas, more or less from least effort to most effort.
- Exchange backlinks with peers.
- Share with influencers. (Ask for feedback, not a backlink. If it’s good you’ll get an endorsement.)
- Ask to be added to a curated directory. (E.g.creatordatabase.io)
- Network with people (There are thousands of directories, but guess why I included the one above? I know the owner.)
- Search for broken backlinks or backlinks to competing websites. Ask to replace them with your link and explain why.
- Write a guest blog post for an authority in your field.
Improve your SEO with data analysis
- Do they have any issues I should solve?
- Did I put the main keywords in all the important positions?
- Can I make it shorter so users have a better experience?
- Can I add more relevant links?
Technical SEO 101
When it comes to more technical SEO, creative people tend to overcomplicate things. I never looked at the technical side, because I had no clue how to improve things.
That changes when I started playing around with technical optimisation. It’s actually easier than you’d think.
Some technical things we’ll look at:
- Page performance (mostly loading time)
- Sitemaps and indexing
- Schema markup
- Responsive design
Page performance and speed
- Go to the page you want to analyze.
- In your menu bar, click “view”.
- Go to “developer” » “Developer tools”.
- Now, on the top-right you’ll see a menu. Click “lighthouse”.
- Finally, click “generate report”.
Here are a few things you can do to improve your loading speed on mobile (and desktop). Since I’m most familiar with WordPress, some tips specifically apply to this CMS.
- Remove any inactive or unnecessary plugins.
- Install an optimizer like SG Optimizer or Jetpack Boost.
- Reduce the size of your mobile logo
- Use the Flying Scripts plugin to delay the loading of JS files.
- Manually simplify your CSS by making there’s no additional CSS like a title in a different font or colour from the default settings. (You can change the default settings.)
Sitemaps and indexing
A sitemap is a file that contains all your website’s pages. Even though some say it’s not necessary to have one, it doesn’t do any harm. A sitemap makes it easy for search engines (and people) to get an overview of all your content.
You can check if you have one via yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml
Some best practice from those who do believe in sitemaps:
- Make sure you’ve submitted it to Google Search console.
- Mention it in the footer of your website.
- Make sure it’s mentioned in your robots.txt file which you find via yourwebsite.com/robots.txt
Breadcrumbs also make it easier to understand the structure of your website. These are links that show the layers of your website, like in this example.
Finally, you can help the indexing of your website by focusing on what matters. Your (WordPress) website usually has more pages than you’re aware of. Think of category pages, tag pages, author profiles etc.
They seem harmless but they can prevent Google from indexing more important pages. (If they aren’t indexed, they will never show up in Search.) Google doesn’t, index all the pages of smaller websites because it simply takes too much time and energy.
So to make sure it doesn’t waste this energy on pages that don’t matter, deindex them. You can do this with Yoast, for example. Go to the Yoast plugin, click “search appearance” and then “taxonomies”. Now you can prevent categories and tags from being indexed.
You can also deindex individual pages. Edit your page and scroll down to the bottom. Again, in the Yoast SEO toolbox, go to the last line “Advanced”. Under “Allow search engines to show this Page in search results?” select “no”.
I do this for certain blog posts that don’t have a focus keyword, for example.
Schema markup and featured snippets
In recent years, Google isn’t just showing the best websites on its first page. It’s also showing images, questions, definitions etc.
These are “smart” answers to give you a quicker answer to your question, even without the need to visit a website. We call these answers, “featured snippets” and you need schema markup for Google to understand your content and turn it into a snippet.
Here are some things to remember when optimising for featured snippets.
- The most common length of a featured snippet is between 40-50 words.
- Don’t forget numbers for listicle snippets.
- Use the keyword early in your text.
And if you’re hoping to rank for a Q&A, use the keyword in the question and then repeat it early in the answer. For example, “What is the best time to tweet?”, “The best time to tweet is at noon.” (Just making this up, fyi).
Mobile-friendly or responsive design
As more and more people use smartphones to surf the Internet, mobile usability has become one of the top ranking factors. It’s entirely possible that your website ranks well on desktop but not on mobile.
So a responsive design (a design that adjusts to the size of the screen) is something that can’t be ignored. Fortunately, a lot of this is automated in WordPress. And usually, depending on your theme or website builder, you can choose to show certain titles or images on desktop but not on mobile.
In this case, I’m most familiar with Elementor (Pro), which allows you to adapt almost every single aspect of your page to look different on mobile than on desktop.
A final technical update that isn’t too hard to implement is an SSL certificate. Usually, you can get a free one, like “Let’s Encrypt”.
This gives you a https domain instead of http. Sometimes you need to turn on something like https enforce to make sure all your traffic is directed to your https domain.
Apart from the extra security and trustworthiness, it gives your website a small ranking boost compared to websites that aren’t secure.