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By: Janice Bandick

Published On: August 26, 2015

In this age of Google dependency – Google now processes over 3.5 billion searches per day – you’ve likely heard of SEO, or search engine optimization. (If you haven’t, SEO refers to the process of improving a website’s visibility in organic, or unpaid, search engine results.) Being ranked in the top results of a Google search results page can make or break a business; the first five results net, on average, about 68% of all organic clicks.

That’s great – for those top-ranking sites. But the rest of us are left wondering, how does SEO work? And more importantly, how can I get SEO to work for my site? This quick guide does not have the magic answer (and any one guide claiming to do so is likely a scam). It will, however, provide an overview of the SEO fundamentals, giving you a better sense of what steps to take next.




How Search Engines Work

First, the very basics. Search engines crawl the web by following links from page to page, then sort the pages into an index (or database). When you input a search query, the search engine pulls pages from the index and returns them in a ranked list. Pages are ranked by relevance, as determined by the search engine; algorithms take into account multiple factors, such as the quantity and quality of a site’s backlinks (or in-bound links), keyword match and context, content uniqueness, and user accessibility. Google’s algorithm takes into account over 200 factors!

General SEO Guidelines

Perhaps the most important guideline to keep in mind is that a good website must be designed with the target audience in mind. Site content should be useful, appealing, information-rich, and valuable to users. That aside, in no particular order, here are a few basics which serve as a useful starting point for understanding SEO:

  • Make sure your site has a clear structure, and that every page is reachable from at least one static link. It’s a good idea to have a XML sitemap, which allows search engines to more easily – and hence more quickly – crawl and index your site pages.
  • Check that your site has been coded properly. Your site should have a fast load speed, be mobile friendly, and have appropriate webpage redirects (if applicable).
  • Do your keyword research, so that you understand what prospective customers are likely to search for, their intent, and what search queries they’re using. Also understand the search volume, relevance, and competition of your targeted keywords.
  • Include keywords or keyword variations in the title and meta description tags of a page, as well as at the top of the page, several times in the body content, in the alt attribute of an image, and in the URL. But don’t go overboard – keyword stuffing will definitely raise some red flags with Google.
  • Don’t hide important text such as keywords and links behind rich media (images, video, audio, etc.). Search engines can’t easily access non-textual information.
  • Avoid duplicate content. Only one version of the page will be shown, and the duplicate pages will be in competition with one another, resulting in lowered rankings.
  • Regularly produce fresh, high-quality content. Getting your content talked about and shared – on other websites as well as on social media – will boost your rankings.
  • Link to trusted, high-authority domains such as university, government, and influential media outlet sites. Also get backlinks from said sites. (This means, of course, that you will need to have amazing content.) Some SEO colloquialism: “link juice” refers to the positive ranking factors that pass from one page to another via linking.
  • Diversify your anchor text (i.e. the clickable text in a hyperlink). The safest bets are natural links (anything that fits in naturally with the context – highly recommended), brand links (e.g. Nike, nike.com), and generic links (e.g. click here, learn more).
  • Measure and track your results, to judge the effectiveness of your SEO strategy. There are many online tools available – do a search and find some! Consider aspects such as organic traffic from search engines by page, conversion rates by search query, keyword rankings, and number of pages receiving at least one visit from search engine traffic.

These points will hopefully get you started with SEO. A wise SEO beginner would, at this point, do some more research on each of these specific points (hint, hint). If, having done so, you decide to consult or hire an SEO expert, I recommend first having a glance through Google’s guide, “Do you need an SEO?”. Good luck!


A Few Words of Caution

Certain practices such as keyword stuffing, manipulative linking (e.g. purchased links, link exchanges), and cloaking (i.e. showing search engines content that’s different from what users see) may get you banned. Google, in particular, is quite firm on this point.


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