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SEO Made Simple, A Step-by-Step Guide for 2021

What is SEO

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. It’s a bunch of things you do to your website to have it rank organically high in Google Search.

It’s also one of the most over-embellished, jargon-rich concepts you’ll run into. I’m not sure why.

This guide will untangle this mess of a concept and provide you with actual information you can use to do it yourself.

A more detailed definition of SEO

The foundation of SEO is keyword research. Without it, you’re blindly creating and optimizing content that may or may not rank you organically high in Google (or Bing’s) search results.

You get your data through keyword research tools. Three popular paid, subscription-based tools are SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz.

There are free tools out there, but, like many free things, there’s a limit or a catch. Limits might include how many searches per day you’re allowed or how much data about those words is shown to you. A catch might include giving up your email (so you can be spammed) or other personal information to be resold so someone can make a profit.

Some people use multiple keyword tools. This is because keyword data is an estimate. Mind you, it’s a good estimate — and often the only one you’ll get. But many of us still like to double-check across different platforms to compare estimates. These tools aren’t cheap, so think twice before paying for more than one at a time.

With your keywords in hand, you’ll begin:

  1. sifting through them, looking for the best ones related to your industry.
  2. create content based on those keywords
  3. weave those keywords throughout your website

Don’t worry. I’ll go into all of that.

Side-note: You cannot pay Google to show up in the organic portion of the listing. Those are bought in Google Ad-Words through a bidding system

Paid advertisements are an entirely different topic. I’ll cover them in another post later.

One last part left to discuss is the difference between on-page and off-page SEO. On-page SEO refers to everything you do on your website to affect its rank, research included. Off-page generally refers to everything else, like social media campaigns and brand identity. I’ll go into greater depth below where I can frame it all in context.

Black Hat SEO vs. White Hat SEO

A conversation about SEO isn’t complete without discussing this. You see, in this industry, there are things you should do and things you shouldn’t do. The list of things you shouldn’t do is listed in Google’s WebMaster Guidelines.

Here’s the list of things to avoid:

  1. Automatically generated content
  2. Participating in link schemes
  3. Creating pages with little or no original content
  4. Cloaking
  5. Sneaky redirects
  6. Hidden text or links
  7. Doorway pages
  8. Scraped content
  9. Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
  10. Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
  11. Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware
  12. Abusing structured data markup
  13. Sending automated queries to Google

Google WebMaster Guidelines

Many black hat SEO tactics use one or some of those avenues to differing degrees to rank a website organically high. And it does work.

However, if you get reported by someone or caught by their constantly updating algorithms, you’ll likely get shadow-banned. Shadow-banned means that your website won’t show up at all in their search results.

What are the odds of getting caught? I really don’t know. But I don’t have the time or the energy to stay ahead of the hundreds of updates Google makes a year in order to catch and ban people.

White hat SEO is everything else. And that’s what the rest of this article covers.

Keywords and Keyword Research

Research is the foundation of SEO. But what you’re researching, how you organize it, and how you implement it is a detailed topic.

It’s best to begin with keywords metrics. These five metrics are the one thing these tools have in common.

  1. Global volume
  2. Volume
  3. Keyword Difficulty
  4. SERP Features
  5. Trend

You’ll notice keyword tools return hundreds, if not thousands, of results. This is because people express their search intent in different ways. However, when you sort your data (and we’ll get into that below), you’ll find that there are a lot of keywords you’ll filter out because they don’t provide much value.

I’ve written a complete article titled, How To Do Organic Keyword Research . This includes some of what we cover below, and also includes a section on how to create lists for your keywords, such as organizing things into local areas for multi-service-area SEO campaigns.

Generating a list of keywords

The first thing you’ll do is generate a list of keywords. The way you go about it will somewhat depend on the tool you use, but the concept’s the same, so you shouldn’t have any trouble. I’ll use SEMrush as an example platform.

I’ll often begin by typing one or two words into SEMrush’s keyword magic tool . It provides categories to sift through:

  1. Global volume: The total number of searches in all databases worldwide.
  2. Volume: The number of average monthly searches based on the last twelve months.
  3. Keyword Difficulty: How hard it’ll be for a new website to rank for this term on the first page of Google. The higher the percentage, the more difficult it’ll be.
  4. SERP Features: Any search results that aren’t organic but have high value because of what they do. For example, a business’ Local Pack.
  5. Trend: Volume seen in months (instead of averages).

So, you type them in and receive results. How many?

Again, often thousands. This is because the keyword your researching (also called a ‘seed word’) is part or related to the variations listed above.

Filtering Keyword Data

Most tools produce an excel-like list. And if you prefer Excel, you can export it to one of its file formats. I highly recommend doing this anyway because it’s faster to sort through and filter keywords offline. Also, you’ll want to save those lists for future use, and loading them up on your computer is faster and easier than repopulating an online list when you’re optimizing.

What to look for when filtering your keywords

Volume

There are a few things you’re looking for. High volume, relevancy, and keyword difficulty.

Volume is easy. It tells you which words provide the most amount of potential traffic. Those are usually the shortest version of a Keyword. Here’s an example. Let’s say you searched “SEO.” SEO will have the highest volume over-all because it’s so broad. One variation you’ll see is “SEO Tutorials.” The volume will be high, but not as high as its seed word (SEO). So, if you’re creating a blog on SEO tutorials, you’ll definitely want to include that.

Relevancy

Once you’ve set aside a bunch of high-volume keywords, you’ll take a closer look at them, making sure they’re relevant to the topic at hand. Your topic, in this case, is what’s relevant to you.

Continuing with “SEO,” if your topic’s “paid SEO tutorials,” the keyword “free SEO tutorials’ and all its variants are irrelevant for that page.

Why? Because it won’t fulfill user search intent. Think of it this way: if you search for free tutorials, click on a link for it, and end up on a page that’s only selling them, you’ll leave. And if you do happen to rank high for an irrelevant keyword, you’ll destroy your bounce rate, and that negatively impacts your search rank because Google assumes your content isn’t up to par (because everyone’s leaving).

Additionally, you’ll be looking at your analytics at some point to see how well you’re doing. A high bounce rate on a page that contains irrelevant keywords makes it extremely difficult to understand why they’re leaving — is it the content that needs optimizing or the fact they landed on a page with the wrong intent?

Keyword Difficulty

Keyword Difficulty is seen through percentages, zero to one hundred percent. It provides you with an idea of, err, that keyword’s difficulty level. You should expect broad keywords (keywords that have the word ‘service’ attached to them) to have high difficulty — somewhere around seventy percent.

But your competitors might not be running an effective, long-term SEO campaign or updating their content on a regular basis, so the difficulty for some words might be low (low is roughly forty to sixty-five percent). If you find a high volume, relevant keyword with a lower percentage, create content around it because it should be an easy win.

Low difficulty keywords with decent volume are also valuable. Again, they’re some easy wins.

Keyword Trends

Many businesses have seasonal differences to account for. Water repair service businesses are a good example: they tend to have an upwards trend during the rainy season, lower during dry.

Make sure you identify any seasonal trends. Build and plan your content and site around it. Knowing them allow you to create a map of where you’re going and when you need to do it.

Think of it as a built-in calendar system for your digital marketer! I think of trends like holidays. Once I know when they are, I mark them on my calendar and plan for it ahead of time. It’s really difficult to throw a Halloween party last minute!

This is just one reason SEO campaigns are long-term plans. They’re rarely set and forget. You or your SEO expert needs to know how to plan, create, and adjust content based on many various factors. Like when to capitalize on a mid-volume keyword evenly-trending vs. a high-volume spike-trending keyword.

SERP Features

SERP’s, or Rich Snippets, are pieces of content automatically generated by Google. They’re displayed during a search all on their own. The data is generated from something called ‘structured data.’ This is a type of code you place on your website. The three formats are SCHEMA, JSON-LD, and Microdata formats.

Most people don’t code these themselves. Instead, they use plugins to generate it for them. This is because each page will need its own code to support the content.

Many keywords have a variety of SERP features available to them. But most keywords only have a few available to them.

A few SERPs are prioritized over others.

  1. FAQ: a list of frequently asked questions for an organic search result
  2. Featured Snippet: Summarized answers to specific questions
  3. Knowledge Panel: a box offering background information about specific topics
  4. Local Pack: A business Name, Address, and Phone Number (NAP)
  5. Reviews: Seen if a business has user reviews on their Google profile
  6. Sitelinks: they appear under search results and include more links to related searches
  7. Top Stories: Relevant blocks of news articles related to the search
  8. Video: a search result with a single video
  9. Video Carousel: a carousel of videos related to the search

Which SERPs to focus on first?

Start with getting your Local Pack up. You’ll know you’ve done it right when you search your business name and see a knowledge panel aside the search results.

Since the Knowledge Panel contains your Name, Address, Phone Number, and home URL, I suggest you also get that information into Google MyBusiness if it’s not. They work in tandem.

Then figure out which SERPs are relevant to your business and work on the relevant keywords and SCHEMA that Google uses to generate it.

Unfortunately, this article can’t go into how that code works. But there are a lot of plugins that will do much of the legwork for you. I can’t recommend one off-hand because I typically code it myself. But a quick Google search will give you the top results

Cost Per Click (CPC)

Every keyword has a CPC associated with it. These results are specifically for people running paid advertisements campaigns in Google AdWords. However, if someone’s willing to pay for it, odds are someone’s trying to rank organically for it as well.

Therefore, it’s a good idea to pay attention to this metric even though it’s not the first or even second thing you’ll look at. It’s also a clever idea to use an AdWords account to look at what people are bidding on within your niche.

Again, if someone’s paying for it, someone’s probably searching for it. Now, take the view from CPC with a grain of salt. Like everything, there are running their own campaigns bidding on what they THINK is valuable and will generate them a return. It might not be backed up by any data at all. Double-check those by using organic volume, trends, etc. as a measuring stick.

Your Competitors

Once you’ve done your research, you’re able to look at your competitors and compare notes. You’re doing this because a) you need to see if their actual rank in search results reflects your data, b) an idea of what the content on the top search results is like, and c) if there are any gaps in competitors keyword choices that you can capitalize on.

Competitor research is simply another filter. I think of it as an in-depth look at keyword difficulty. I’m gauging how much effort they’ve put into their SEO, which gives me an idea of how much work I’ll need to do to begin ranking as high or higher.

I also take note of any big brands in my way. Big brands fall into two groups: resellers, like Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, etc., and brand names, like Dyson, Cadbury, or Nike. In these cases, I accept that they’re number one, and I’ll aim for number two.

It’s unlikely that someone will outrank either type. Google prioritizes brands like that, and their dominance in search results has been pissing off SEO experts for a long time. This is often because they have thin content (something we’ll go into later), near-zero SEO, but still rank high (usually numbers one through five). Big brands are exceptions to the rules.

If you are competing with a big brand, adjust your expectations for the nearest rank under them, that is, your competition is the people below them.

I’ll cover three ways to research your competitors. Google search, Google search’s advertisement results, and some features in SEMrush.

Google Search

Get your list out and find the first keyword you’re interested in ranking for. Type into Google search. Take note of who dominates the first ten positions.

Paste the URLs of the top few results into an excel sheet for later.

Now, go through each of their websites. Take a close look at their content.

  1. Is it well written?
  2. Is it reasonably accurate?
  3. Does it contain the keyword or any obvious variations?
  4. Are their headlines using keywords?
  5. Does their URL structure use keywords?
  6. Do they have a blog?
  7. How many posts do they have?
  8. Are the posts relevant to what they’re selling?
  9. Does it Contain keywords as well?
  10. Notice if there are any gaps in their content. Gaps might include things they’ve got wrong, missed entirely, or pages with thin content.

There’s a chance your competitors are dominating the top positions but are easy to over-take or rank alongside with because they’re not updating or aware of SEO.

How many competitors you’ll analyze this for depends on your time, or if you’re doing this for a job, your budget. But I recommend at least making time for the top positions (excluding positions taken by big brands).

Paid Advertisements as Competitor Insight

Remember, paid advertisement campaigns aren’t the same as SEO campaigns. You can’t SEO your way to the top of an advertisement — you must buy those. However, the ads you see are additional competitors you should look at.

Another reason to look at advertisements is they’re often targeted to your geographical location. This helps you find competitors that are reaching beyond their service areas, beyond what their organic rank allows.

Some people really dislike how much time and effort SEO campaigns take to produce results. Their impatience, misunderstandings, or misgivings about SEO cause them to spend money on paid advertisements while neglecting their organic position.

Yes, people pay either way, but a long-term, well-implemented SEO campaign should outpace a long-term paid advertisement campaign. In a world without budgetary limits, SEO and paid advertisement campaigns work together, each picking up where other leaves off.

Paid Subscription Tools for Research

I’ll continue using SEMrush as a running example.

There are a few different tools in their platform to research competitors. I’ll focus on these two: Domain Analytics and Keyword Analytics.

Domain Analytics

If you type a competitor’s URL in the Domain Analytics pane, you’ll get an overview of their metrics. Because this section is talking about competitor research, I’ll stick to two specific metrics in this pane:

  1. Top Organic Keywords
  2. Main Organic Competitors

Top Organic Keywords

SEMrush only tracks keywords attached to a domain if they rank within the first one-hundred positions in a search result. This pane provides you with that list for the searched website. They may have thousand-plus more keywords below rank one hundred (which is why you need to have generated a separate list unattached from competitive views)

If you expand that view with the ‘view details’ button, you’ll see a list that looks a lot like the keywords lists you were generating beforehand for yourself. But some of the metrics are different. You’ll see:

  1. Keyword
  2. SERP Features
  3. Position
  4. Difference
  5. Traffic %
  6. Volume per/month
  7. Keyword Difficulty %
  8. CPC
  9. URL
  10. SERP
  11. Date the database Updated

By now, you should be familiar with most of these, and the position metric is intuitive enough to not explain.

So, you have your list of keywords you want to rank for. You have a list of keywords THEY’RE already ranking for and which position they’re in. Begin sorting through and comparing lists. Remember, your competitors might be missing valuable, high volume, relevant keywords that are on your list. They also might show you some mid-range volume variations you missed.

Main Organic Competitors

Organic competitors are based on the number of keywords of each website has AND the number of the website’s common keywords. If it finds a website with a high number of common keywords ranking in Google’s top 20 organic search results, it’s considered a competitor.

This metric is great when your competitors are ranking for the right keywords (intentionally or not). Not so great when it includes unrelated websites. You’ll need to filter out the irrelevant stuff manually.

Here are the metrics:

  1. Domain: The URL of the competitor website
  2. Com. Level: A percent based on the number of keywords each competitor and common keywords of both competitors. Larger commonalities increase percentages.
  3. Common Keywords: Number of keywords in Common based on the top twenty organic results.
  4. SE Keywords: Number of keywords bringing traffic to that domain based on Google’s top one-hundred returned results.
  5. Traffic: Estimated organic traffic given the keywords.
  6. Costs: Estimate cost of traffic given if paid keywords are found.
  7. Paid Keywords: The number of keywords found they’re currently running a paid campaign on.

Those two tools are a good start and a time saver. It doesn’t matter which you use first and often swap between the two. But you’ll always need to return to Google search and your keywords list to double-check your data.

Content Creation

With your keyword and competition research out of the way, you can begin writing or optimizing your content. The key to SEO content writing is naturally weaving keywords into it. I’ll put a list of where you’re placing keywords below, but before that, I’d like to provide some writing advice.

Avoid keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing is the practice of taking a handful of keywords you want to rank for and unnecessarily repeating them everywhere throughout the content to rank better. It doesn’t work.

History Lesson: Keyword stuffing was an effective SEO strategy back in the day. Google’s indexing algorithms years back counted how many times and places your page used a set of keywords. The more you had, the higher you’d rank.

There was a time you could put unrelated keywords into your meta tags or hidden in your content because the combined search volume of those (unrelated) words influenced your rank despite them being unrelated.

Doing this doesn’t benefit you. Furthermore, no one wants to read that junk anyway, and many people will often abandon your page because it looks unprofessional.

Content-Length: Short vs. Long Form

The content you create needs to answer the users’ search intent. What you’re writing about dictates how long the content will be. There are questions, products, and services that can be answered in less than 300 words. But I find most websites benefit from creating in-depth explanations.

Why? Because people and search engines alike aren’t typically satisfied with answers that don’t questions. So, unless you’re talking about how to boil an egg, assume your content will be longer than 300 words.

Longer content tends to outperform short content in almost every way. A few websites already did the math and noticed a correlation between high organic positions and long content. How long? Often over a thousand words.

Does EVERY product, service, or idea written about have enough wiggle room to talk about something without being fluffy and pointless? No. But, do your best to make it informative.

Short Content risks being Thin Content

The term thin content is an industry term. It’s what we call content below three hundred-ish words (when it’s not a cooking recipe). When you were performing competitor research, you may have run into websites that have high ranks in search results, but seemingly no content to support it.

When I run into that, I immediately look at their direct competition.

I’m trying to discover whether other people ranking with those keywords also have thin content. If they do, I’m extremely happy because they’ve set the bar low. I won’t need to put nearly as much work into my content as someone who has service or product pages with informative descriptions, portfolios, or blogs full of HOWTOs and industry news supporting their SEO campaign.

If their competition doesn’t explain their high rank, I look at their backlink profile to see if it’s supported there. I’ll go over backlinks and how to evaluate them in another section.

Where to place keywords

  1. Keywords are weaved in throughout your page. This includes:
  2. Page titles
  3. Meta Descriptions
  4. Headlines (h1 – h6)
  5. Image filenames
  6. Image alt tags
  7. Anchor Links
  8. Lastly, the content itself.

Semantic SEO

Writing about your products and services should be as natural as talking about it. I’m not saying you should take an unprofessional tone, but you should be able to write like you’re speaking with a real person right in front of you. Just make sure to use headlines to separate your content into topics so it’s easy to follow.

Google has adjusted their algorithms to look at the topics keywords talk about. See, Google is constantly refining something called Natural Language . Their goal is to better understand the semantics behind what people talk about.

I’d love to deep dive this concept, but it’s too far out of scope, and I couldn’t do it justice in a few paragraphs. I highly encourage you to read about it as its shaping our near future.

Here’s a summary instead:

The Natural Language algorithms are AI breaking content down into digestible bites, analyzing everything, and splitting it into groups to understand topics and meanings better. It does this by leaning on data already available and historically archived by Google, such as everything written in Wikipedia, or the topic categories Google already uses to separate businesses into broad groups, like telecom, food, beauty, or health.

Rather than strictly looking at how many times someone writes a single keyword in an article, it looks at related keywords, variations, AND semantic data, comparing all of that to what they already have data on.

This downside might be it makes it arguably harder to predict how keywords will impact your rank, but it also allows you to write your content naturally.

What I mean is that the keyword groups, lists and categories I’ve been encouraging you to create throughout this entire novel (sure feels like a novel to me at this point) make it easy for YOU to separate your content into digestible bites; like the mini-essays we used to write in school. The topic/categories keep you, your reader, the robots on track. In turn, your effort should help you rank higher.

Just remember, semantic content isn’t the only way we’re being ranked. There are over two hundred known ranking factors we’re aware of. And it’s difficult to nail down which factor contributes how much. But, if you’ve already read this far down, you can see it doesn’t matter. We must put in a lot of time and effort just to write our content anyway.

What I’m saying is that you should worry less about discovering the next short-cut and instead focus on creating high quality, relevant content, and adhering to SEO best practices that are easily available and often intuitive.

On-page and off-page SEO Optimization

On-page SEO is mostly everything you see on the website. This includes your headlines, written content, and technical stuff (like URL structure, page load speeds, image sizes, mobile-friendliness), etc. Most of the on-page stuff is done when you’re writing, optimizing, and adding content through-out a website.

Off-page SEO covers other things, like backlinks, the impact of social media profiles and content sharing, your brand identity, or the search history of the person making the search, etc.

People typically focus on On-Page first because the content on your website is the content you’re sharing on social networks or building backlinks for.

Now, most websites offer on and off-page optimization HOWTOs in the form of checklists. And since I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’ll break-down some of SEMrush’s checklist. It shouldn’t matter who’s list you use at the end of the day as they all cover the same topics. They just might organize it differently.

A typical On-Page SEO Checklist

Strategy

Make sure you’re regularly updating important content on your website. If you’re in an industry where you’ve said it all, and there’s never anything new happening, you’ll simply shift update-time somewhere else.

Avoid Keyword Cannibalization. Your website competes with itself to some extent. If webpages have extremely similar keyword-driven content, they may eventually compete against each other. Google will likely index both, but you can’t control which paged is served when. If this happens to you, consider merging the content into one page and perform a 301 redirect on the one you remove.

SERP Features

Keywords with SERP Features are seen when searched. If any of the keywords in your list do, plan on building content around it. Local Pack and Reviews are two SERPs to focus on first. Just remember, reviews are generated solely through your Google My Business Profile.

Content

Avoid Keyword Stuffing your content in the hopes of ranking better. It doesn’t work and might get you penalized. Now, it’s difficult to say exactly how many times you can use a keyword in a post without complications. Don’t look for exact numbers. Instead, focus on writing your content naturally and sprinkle variations in.

Make sure the content you do write is relevant to the topic at hand and fulfills search intent. If people land on your page and leave because it isn’t what they were searching for or didn’t answer their questions, your rank will suffer.

Create video content if you have the capability. Anything you integrate will seamlessly connect into social media profiles, like YouTube, and some people prefer watching over reading.

Make sure your text is easy to read for the target demographic. That means avoid using industry jargon that people might be unfamiliar with. If you have to use it, explain it in simple language.

HTML List for Content

Many checklists and auditing tools contain some HTML aspects you should look for. This includes:

  1. "body" tag contains target keyword(s). Your website’s content is surrounded by a "body" tag. If you’ve used your keyword(s) somewhere in your content, you’re good.
  2. Don’t keyword stuff your "title" tag, which is repeating the same keyword over and over.
  3. "meta" tags should contain keywords within their description. This field isn’t a ranking factor but is displayed in organic search results below URLs. Naturally, add your target keyword in and tell people what they’ll find if they follow that link.
  4. "h1" tag contains keyword.
  5. Semantic: In SEMrush, at least, this “checkmark” is looking at the semantic keyword variations of your ten competitors, seeing what commonalities exist between them, and if you missed any.
  6. Backlinks: This checks your top ten competitors backlink profiles and provides you that list. It’s a good start because it’s a head start on your upcoming backlink campaign.
  7. Technical Issues: "meta" tag is used (sometimes people forget this exists).
  8. No duplicated content exists. Sometimes you need to have extremely similar content repeated on your website. Google flags this as a duplicate. Avoid this error by providing a canonical tag.
  9. Internal links are present, that is, your pages all link to each other.
  10. Pages aren’t blocked from crawling. Sometimes you want pages to be blocked because they’re duplicate content, thin content, or a blog category that won’t be used.

Mobile Friendliness

Mobile-friendly websites are sites that automatically adjust content to fit mobile phone design limitations. Design limitations include screen sizes, bandwidth, and device type Screen size differences are usually handled by media queries. I’ve written a separate tutorial titled What are CSS Media Queries on my partner site. But, in short, they work by triggering certain actions based on the media type (the screen size, browser type, or type of media (phone, tablet, and desktop)). Actions include resizing fonts, shifting three column layouts to one column layouts, serving smaller versions of images, hiding certain images all-together, etc.

How to code media queries is extremely handy to know because it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the many different screen sizes available today. Size also includes browser sizes (like whether the person is viewing the website in full screen or in a really small browser window).

Bandwidth limitations address internet speed (3g, 4g, 5g, etc.), and how older phones or mobile users with limited bandwidth plans don’t need to download large files – with large images often being the worst culprit.

Device type includes compatibility issues. These are a bit rare because most people only use a handful of browsers anyway, and the competition between them keeps most compatibility issues at bay. However, media queries can handle a small subset of compatibility issues like serving up a different menu that might not be compatible with a browser (looking at you, MS Edge), or how some browsers prefer a bit more space below h1 tags.

Some of these tasks might require you to learn some simple code or hire someone else. Even if you have no intention of learning how to code, you need to understand what the people you’re potentially hiring to do consists of.

Mobile-First Indexing

We prioritize mobile friendliness because of Google’s Mobile-First Indexing initiative. You see, Google predominantly adjusts your organic rank (desktop rank included) based on how well your website performs on mobile phones. This was implemented on July 1, 2019. If your website is built before then, Google uses historic best-practices; however, the older sites I’ve run into have been swapped to mobile-first indexing anyway.

I highly suggest reading the content linked above firsthand.

Page Load Speed

The speed your page loads determines page load speed. I recommend measuring and diagnosing this with Google PageSpeed. There are two ways of accessing it. Online at PageSpeed or through the Chrome Browser built-in DevTools. A free tutorial and an explanation of this tool’s metrics are found on my website on a blog titled, Auditing a website with Google PageSpeed .

But, in short, this tool calculates performance through six metrics. Your target is a score below two seconds. Some web pages can’t have a below two-second score. You’ll better understand why after we look at the other factors below.

CSS

How large and how many CSS files your website uses affect page speed. A lot of CSS files means a lot of download and upload requests. Big files take longer. So, it’s best to try and keep your CSS as slim as possible and the number of loading files to as few as necessary.

There are some tricks of the trade people use; the most common is something called “minify.” Type it into Google. You’ll have plenty of options. Just make sure you keep a backup of your CSS because it might break things.

JavaScript

The affect JavaScript has on page load speed is like CSS. It’s another set of files or code that needs to be loaded. It’s difficult to predict how, if, and when you’ll need it. But the goal is to use only what’s necessary. You’ll have to be the judge on what’s necessary.

One thing to be aware of is JavaScript can perform a lot of the function’s CSS provides. What they are is too many to list, but the point is that some people can code something so efficiently in JavaScript that it’ll load faster than a badly coded CSS file. So, don’t be alarmed if what you’re using is one, another, or mixed.

Image Optimization

Images eat up most of the bandwidth. The task image optimization isn’t too difficult to understand or do. The easiest way is to optimize an image is to crop and resize it to fit the size of the device it’s being viewed on, then loading it as needed through a media query. If you’re passively familiar with photo editing software, you’ll have noticed a “quality” slider. You can usually lower it from one hundred to ninety percent, which shouldn’t be noticeable to most people’s eyes. Some images can only be shrunk down so far, so you can either Lazy Load them (see below) or avoid loading some of them on mobile devices altogether. It depends on what function that image has in your design and what value it provides the person on your website.

Note: Lazy Loading is something we do to delay when an image loads. Specifically, it’s loaded when the person scrolls down the website.

WordPress and other CMS platforms

WordPress is the most popular blog and small-medium business website CMS available. No guide is complete without covering it and the basic principles of CMS in general. CMS Software is incredible because it allows non-web developers to create and launch websites by themselves. They can easily add content, tweak themes, and manage a lot of the tasks themselves.

Unfortunately, this comes with a drawback. All CMS software has a justified reputation for being bloated. Bloated here refers to the amount of code needed to allow people with little to no coding experience or knowledge the ability to do just that – design a website.

In plain English, it means this: CMS load a lot of files. Many web developers (coders) won’t include them by default because those extra functions aren’t included in the scope of the project. This includes the ability to edit a website through a graphical interface.

But the trade-off is worth it. A good theme or a good web developer like myself (shameless plug) can build you something that fits your needs and loads quickly, all the while making sure you can still edit it as needed without any coding experience at all.

Themes and Plugins

CMS platforms provide basic ones for free. They’re usually updated fairly often, but most people won’t be satisfied with it because what they provide is the bare minimum. Missing options include different font styles, layout customization, etc.

Paid themes and plugins are there to fill that gap. If the theme you’re using doesn’t have what you need, odds are there’s a plugin that will provide it. The trade-off here is often page load speed. More plugins and bigger themes bloat the site by adding more files (CSS, JavaScript, etc.). That said, there are themes available that don’t bloat the site up too badly, and you even then you can maintain respectable page load speeds using plugins that clean up unnecessary files.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO’s refers to backlinks and link building, social media campaigns, content sharing, a brand identity, and factors out of your control, like the search history of the person making the search. Because of how backlinks and social media work, people perform most off-page tasks after their on-page tasks are more or less complete. This is because the content on your website is the content you’re sharing on social networks or building backlinks with.

Backlinks

A large part of your off-page SEO campaign will be about building quality backlinks from other websites. In a perfect world, you create content that’s so amazing other people are compelled to link, share, and bookmark it. When that happens, we say that you’ve gained a backlink . The more backlinks you have pointing towards your site, the better. And we say content is king because high quality content should naturally build backlinks over time.

Before I go into different kinds of backlinks, it’s useful to know the structure of one because it’ll help you understand why different links are valued differently.

The structure of a backlink

Backlinks are links. Links are bits of HTML Code. If you’re looking at the code, you’ll actually see this:

<a> href= https://www.example.com title=”Goes to example website” rel=”follow”>This is a link, also called a backlink, technically called anchor text.</a>

There are four main parts to this:

  1. HREF: where the link is going to.
  2. TITLE: A description for accessibility.
  3. REL: describes the link as FOLLOW, NOFOLLOW or SPONSORED.
  4. ANCHOR TEXT is the underlined part we see all the time.

There was a time where the TITLE and ANCHOR were the main-focus of many SEO campaigns because they were such strong ranking signals – they are keywords. However, Google got smart and realized that people were buying keywords (from legitimate websites AND spam websites by the thousands) to artificially pump their rank. So, they kiboshed it.

That said, backlinks are still extremely important because they do affect your organic rank. They’re just not as easy to “game” as they used to be.

FOLLOW, NOFOLLOW and SPONSORED Links

The REL tag instructs Google Robots what kind of link this is. For crawling and indexing purposes, FOLLOW is the most important. NOFOLLOW instructs Google to ignore it, and SPONSORED is added if it’s paid for. You can combine them, for example, rel=”follow sponsored”.

If a link is paid for, it’s supposed to use NOFOLLOW or SPONSORED.

Internal Links

When a link from your website points to another page on your website, we call it an internal link. For example, there’s navigation links in your menu, or links from your homepage pointing to a product or service.

These links help search engines understand the layout of your website. And it’s important that every page on your website links back to your homepage. Furthermore, you use links in posts and pages to help people find additional information. This also helps Google understand your website better.

Try to keep your internal linking intuitive, descriptive, and short. Don’t stuff keywords into it as it’s unnecessary, however, if the keyword makes sense to include, use it.

A safe way to begin using internal links is to combine them with other ideas, such as separating installation service pages from repair service pages. This is also important (and recommended) when you’re combining your SEO efforts with Google Analytics/Webmaster tools – you’ll be able to see which pages are performing best and allocate your time and resources as needed.

I will write an entire article on internal link building strategies at some point. And, when it’s done, I’ll add a link pointing to it (hah!).

Social Media marketing

I placed this immediately after backlinks because of how social media platforms treat links to your website.

First, social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc., treat all links you post or share as NOFOLLOW. This means they do NOT count as ranking signals. However, when people visit your site by clicking on those links, your website traffic increases, which is a ranking signal.

Another thing social media provides is trust. Not trust in the sense of you see them online so you trust them; trust in the sense that Google sees your NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) are the same across many different platforms. It’s a hint that you’re a legitimate business. Therefore, it’s valuable to create social accounts even if you’re not going to be posting on them.

Brand Identity / Coherency

Brands identity is off-page because nothing about your identity provides direct ranking benefits. However, your brand does build recognition and trust over time. So, it’s important to plan out and maintain your identity throughout your online and offline interactions.

Also, if your brand ends up growing to a nation-wide status, it’ll be easier to maintain brand recognition if you’re brand assets are already templated out.

That said, the details of brand identity don’t fall within the scope of this article. But if you’re interested in some tips, take a look at this article on my partner site titled, Brand Identity, A Few Tips .

In Conclusion

Hopefully, you better understand Search Engine Optimization and why you can’t ignore it.

If through reading this you’ve noticed you’ve made some mistakes (or I have!), don’t worry, you can always implement the correct change. In fact, many of the things we do in SEO shift as Google shifts their algorithms — much of what was standard SEO practice is now black hat.

If you’d rather hire someone else (shameless plug incoming), I’m here to do it for you.

AZ Copywriting Ltd.

Vancouver web designer and philosopher.

paul@zimeras.ca
778-288-8499

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