Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a crucial aspect of marketing for any business, but it’s particularly helpful if you’re just starting out. This form of digital marketing involves making your website as good as it can be to help you gain more visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs), which is a great way for new customers to find you.
SEO is a multi-faceted discipline, but we’ll break it down into two key components in this guide: on-page optimisation, which includes technical SEO and content creation, and off-page optimisation, which involves building up the trustworthiness of your site.
This side of SEO refers to everything that you can do on your site itself to optimise it for search engines. It’s completely under your control and there’s no reason not to do everything you can to make your site as strong as possible.
Technical SEO sounds intimidating, but there’s a lot that you can do, even with limited knowledge of code and web development.
As the first port of call, you should do a Google site search of your website, as shown below, to make sure that it can index all of the pages that you want it to – this means that it is able to add them to its database (index) and deliver them to human searchers.
If the number of pages returned is significantly different to what you expect, check the backend of your website to make sure that key areas aren’t marked as ‘no index.’
If all of the right pages are indexable, it’s important to make sure that Google can crawl your site properly (this means that Google’s indexing bots – ‘crawlers’ can access all of your pages through your hyperlink structure).
Having a clear structure to your site, with top-level pages, like ecommerce category pages, linking to deeper pages, like product pages, in a logical way will make it easier for Google’s bots to see everything. Ideally, your URLs should reflect a logical linking structure, like so:
- homepage.com → homepage.com/category → homepage.com/category/product
- homepage.com → homepage.com/about-us → homepage.com/about-us/history
You should also check your websites linking structure for any broken links and redirects. You can use free tools like Integrity to help you with this. You’re especially looking for links that return 404 errors – this means that following the link leads to a broken page.
If you have links on your site pointing to 404 pages, you should either delete them or redirect them using a 301 redirect. 404 errors are bad for SEO, as they’re basically dead ends for crawlers that shouldn’t be there, but they’re also bad for the overall usability of your site from a human point of view.
The final thing to look out for when you’re starting out with SEO is duplicate content. Having multiple pages with the same content means that they will compete with one another for good positions in the SERPs, which often leads to none of the pages ranking well. If you have pages that are very similar to each other or variations of the same page, you should choose one ‘master’ page and canonicalise all of the rest to that page.
Canonicalisation means implementing a canonical tag (like the one below) in the head tag of a page’s source code. A successful canonicalisation will mean that Google only recognises the master page as rankable, and any ‘link juice’ (more on this later) from the other pages will pass to that page.
- <link rel=”canonical” href=”http://homepage.com/category/product” />
SEO & content
The less technical side of on-page SEO involves ensuring that all your site’s content is well-written and relevant to the topics you want to rank highly for. Remember that search engines want to show their users the best, most relevant results for any search query. You need to have this in mind when researching and writing copy for your site.
Before writing any copy for pages that you want searchers to find, you need to do keyword research. This means identifying the search terms that people are using to find products and services like yours.
You could use the free trial of a tool like Ahrefs to generate ideas for keywords around a topic. Ahrefs and similar tools will show you lists of related keywords, alongside their average monthly search volume for Google users. Other good keyword research tools include Answer the Public (free), SEMRush and the Moz Keyword Explorer.
When you’ve identified the keywords that you want to target, you should plan your site’s content to prioritise pages that target one or two of your most important keywords. For ecommerce sites, category pages are often the most important for keyword targeting, while for lead gen sites, it’s often the service or product information pages that you want to optimise.
Metadata is information about your page that doesn’t necessarily appear on the page. In the example below, Google SERPs show the metadata for Company Check’s homepage in the form of a page title (the text for the hyperlink) and meta description (the text below the URL).
In terms of code, the metadata is contained in the head tag of the page’s source code, but most content management systems will allow you to set the title and description in whatever interface they offer, either as standard or with the help of a plugin like Yoast.
In pure SEO terms, the title is the only thing that will help a page to rank higher. You should try to match your title exactly or closely to whatever the main keyword you’re targeting is to give yourself the best chance of ranking for it. Meta descriptions don’t hold any SEO value, but it’s good to optimise them anyway, as they’re a big factor in whether or not searchers will click on your result in the SERP.
Whatever you do with your metadata, it’s absolutely essential that you hit the nail on the head with well-optimised web copy if you want to rank well. It’s a good idea to use your keyword research to guide the topics you want to talk about on each page and mention the keyword a couple of times in appropriate places.
In the old days of SEO, it helped to stuff as many mentions of the keyword into the page as possible, but search engines like Google are now wise to tactics that aim to manipulate them without providing value to human users. Let human readability be your primary guideline as you write good copy about your target keyword. There is no such thing as ‘SEO copy’ that can rank well without appealing to human users.
You also need to avoid plagiarising content from other sites and duplicating your own copy at all costs. Pages that do this won’t rank well. Keep each page original, topical and fresh to give each one the best chance of ranking for its target keywords.
Good on-page work should be supported with off-page optimisation that builds trust in your site. Search engines use off-page signals – primarily links from other sites – to get an idea of how good your site is and how well it should rank in comparison to competitors. How many links you’ll need to build to rank well for your target keywords depends on how trustworthy the pages that are already ranking well for it appear to be.
The idea of ‘link juice’ is important here. I mentioned it earlier – it’s the idea that most links pass some kind of vote of confidence (‘juice’) from the source page to the target page. The more authority the source page has, the more juice it will pass in its links. It’s also important to bear in mind other factors, such as how relevant the source site is to your target keyword.
When looking to build (i.e. acquire) links that point towards your site, you need to bear in mind that search engines will penalise manipulative link building practices, such as purchasing useless links from spammy sites. The best links are those that you acquire naturally, with sites choosing to your content as a resource or providing some kind of endorsement.
However, you can help this process along by building high quality, relevant links. These could include entries in local or industry specific directories (or high-quality national directories), or links that come around as a result of some kind of contribution to another site, like if an industry news site publishes a thought-leadership piece that you’ve written.
Google and other search engines are looking to reward links that offer value to human users. As with writing well-optimised content, you need to have humans in mind when building links. If a link to your site doesn’t provide any value to a human, you probably don’t want it. If, however, a user would find the link helpful (especially if they would miss it if the link wasn’t there), it’s a good link to have.
Building a strong backlink profile will increase the strength of your site, helping to give you an advantage over your competitors. In conjunction with good on-site work, it will help your website to rank well in the SERPs, which will lead to more exposure and, hopefully, more customers.