How to do SEO: A beginner’s guide for small businesses and entrepreneurs
Wondering how to do SEO but not sure where to start? You’ve come to the right place. Search engine optimization (SEO) can drive quality traffic to your website and grow your business — and this guide will walk you through how to do SEO the right way to grow your business.
How to do SEO: A beginner’s guide
Let’s get started!
What is SEO, and why does it matter?
SEO is the process of optimizing your web pages to organically increase your website’s visibility in search engine result pages (SERPs) or search engine listings.
With about 90% of the overall search market, Google is currently the largest search engine. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t optimize for other search engines, such as Yahoo, Bing, Apple and Baidu.
Why does SEO matter?
Billions of Google users search for information, products or services online every day. In fact, Google processes about 99,000 search queries per second. As a result, search engines are the biggest potential traffic sources for websites.
We’ll explore how to make this happen, with the help of target keywords and other specific SEO tactics, later in this article.
Still not sure if learning how to do SEO is worth your effort? Check out these facts:
- Search engine traffic comprises a significant chunk of trackable traffic to a website.
- Seventy-five percent of searchers only choose a result from the first page of SERPs.
- Top results on SERPs have a click-through rate (CTR) of 28.5 percent.
- Strong SEO practices lead to a positive user experience. In fact, Google introduced the Page Experience algorithm update in 2021 that aims at providing its users with an optimal experience.
- Effective SEO means a higher return on investment (ROI).
Convinced that it’s worthwhile to work towards improving SEO on your website to drive organic search traffic to your business? Great. Let’s keep going.
Before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re speaking the same language. SEO involves a lot of industry jargon that’s helpful to understand when optimizing your site for search engines like Google. Below are important terms to remember:
- Keywords: Words or phrases people type or say to search engines when searching for something.
- Long-tail keywords: Keywords or phrases with lower search volumes.
- Keyword difficulty: This keyword research metric helps determine how difficult it is to rank for a specific keyword. It’s a great way to determine whether it’s worth investing in that keyword or phrase.
- Keyword relevance: How important is a specific keyword or phrase to a web page? Search engines use relevancy to determine what your content is about and when deciding what pages to rank for a specific search query.
- Search volume: Refers to the number of search queries for a specific search phrase in Google within a stated time frame.
- Backlinks: Links from a website’s page to another website. The links should be from a relevant and high-quality page to be effective.
- Search query: A keyword combination or phrase users enter into search engines to find what they are looking for.
- SERPs: An acronym for Search Engine Results Pages and refers to pages that search engines provide when a user performs a search query.
- Indexing: The search engine’s process of organizing information before a search for faster responses to queries.
- Ranking factor: Refers to the criteria that search engines apply to evaluate web pages when compiling their search results rankings.
- On-page SEO: The process of optimizing web pages to achieve better rankings and earn organic traffic. It involves publishing high-quality, relevant content and optimizing headlines, images and HTML tags (meta, title, and header).
- Off-page SEO: Refers to actions taken away from your website that impact your rankings in SERPs.
- Googlebot: This refers to Google’s web crawler and involves a desktop and a mobile crawler
- Search algorithm: A collection of formulas that search engines use to determine the quality and relevance of a web page to a search query.
- Sitemap: A list of website pages within a domain or a file that provides information about pages, videos, and how different files within your site relate.
- White hat SEO: SEO practices approved by search engines like Google.
- Black hat SEO: SEO practices that go against search engine guidelines, including tactics like keyword stuffing, cloaking, etc., to attain a higher ranking in search results.
Search engine basics
There is no SEO without search engines. Let’s get familiar with the ins and outs of search engines, especially how they work to provide personalized results to users.
Search engines are web-based tools that enable users to search for information on the internet. In other words, these are complex programs that identify information in the vast internet
database that matches a user’s search terms. Google is currently the most popular search engine.
Google provides its users with two types of search results: organic and paid. The latter option is one of the ways search engines make money. Ideally, the advertiser pays anytime a user clicks on a paid search result (aka PPC). More on that later …
How Google builds its index
Each search engine has its unique way of building a search index. For the sake of this article, let’s look at the breakdown of Google’s process.
Google’s process of building a search index starts with identifying URLs. A URL, which stands for Uniform Resource Locator, is the internet address people use to access a web page. Here are some common ways Google achieves this:
- From sitemaps: Sitemaps help Google understand the important files on your site.
- From backlinks: Google library has billions of web pages. Linking your new page to a known page allows Google to identify it from there.
- URL submission: As a site owner, you can request the crawling of an individual URL in the Google Search Console.
This is a discovery process where search engines use a team of robots (crawlers or spiders) to find new and updated content. This can be in the form of blog content, video, images, PDFs, etc., that’s discoverable by links.
Processing and rendering
Finally, Google adds the crawled pages to its search index. This is where search engines fetch information when users perform a search.
Google ranking factors
Google currently has more than 200 ranking factors. While some of these factors are known, others are yet to be disclosed. Here are a few of the big ones we know about:
Google aims to provide the most relevant information to a search query. As such, relevance is a valuable ranking factor that should drive your content creation strategy.
Getting relevant and high-quality links from other websites to your site can help improve your Google rankings. However, the emphasis here is quality over quantity.
The use of mobile devices has increased significantly in the past few years. The number of mobile users stood at 15 billion in 2021 and is expected to surpass the 18 billion mark by 2025.
Having a mobile-friendly website means people on mobile devices like smartphones can easily access the web like desktop users. It’s easy to understand why Google considers mobile-friendliness when ranking web pages in search results.
Why you should track Google algorithm updates
Google algorithm is a set of rules that Google uses to provide relevant results to a search query. However, these algorithms keep changing in Google’s efforts to provide a better experience to users and improve SEO performance.
Website owners and marketers should stay abreast of these updates to increase their chances of ranking higher in search engine results.
Google algorithm updates can impact various aspects of your website, including:
- Organic search traffic
- Search ranking and visibility
- Return on investment (ROI)
The bottom line is that algorithm updates are not meant to punish website owners but are rather a way to reward sites that provide valuable content and a better user experience.
How does SEO work?
To help you understand how SEO works, let’s look at how people search on Google. When a user enters a search query into Google’s search bar, Google responds by providing results relevant to that query.
To do that, Google needs to know that these pages exist, what they contain, and their popularity. Then, using the process outlined above, Google shows the most relevant results from its massive inventory of data.
When performing a search, people use phrases related to what they are searching for. These phrases are called keywords, and users can either type them or say them (voice search).
Google has search quality ratings that analyze the quality of your content to determine when to show it on SERPs. Here’s what these ratings assess:
- The quality and quantity of the content
- Website reputation and site information
- Expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (EAT) of the content
All these measures ensure that the most relevant, useful and trustworthy web pages appear on top of search results pages.
Pro tip: Find your search engine rankings by searching the terms you are targeting. If you have a large website, use tools like SEMrush to find other terms you might be ranking for.
Key components of SEO
When learning how to do SEO, it’s important to understand that search engine optimization is a complex process. It’s easiest for beginners to break it down into these five main steps:
- Keyword and competitor research: Find and analyze terms people use when searching for businesses like yours.
- Content creation: Develop and publish content with users in mind.
- On-page SEO: Optimize your website’s pages to gain a higher ranking in search engine results and improve organic traffic
- Link building: Use off-page SEO strategies to build trust and authority from other sites.
- Technical SEO: Take practical measures that enable search engines to find, crawl and index content more easily.
Organic vs. paid SEO
As noted above, search engine results pages contain these two types of results: Paid and organic results.
- Paid results: Have you seen search results with a little green box with the word “Ad” when you perform a Google search? That is a paid result, meaning the website owners have paid to have the page appear on top of the search result list. This type of search engine advertising is also known as Pay Per Click (PPC).
- Organic results: These are unpaid lists that appear on top of search results because the pages are relevant to what the searcher is looking for.
While paid results give you a higher position in the ads section, it’s crucial to know that most users ignore ads and instead select organic results.
Organic SEO is a long-term game that doesn’t provide overnight results. Be ready to put in the work and exercise patience and persistence to see the desired results.
Besides, Google and other search engines are constantly changing their algorithm, and you need to outsmart your competitors to achieve higher rankings in search engine results.
Set up for SEO success
How you do SEO determines the results you will get. That said, your SEO efforts can be more effective if your website is set up for success.
Choose the perfect domain name
Pay close attention to the domain name you choose to represent your business online. After all, your domain determines how easy it is for your audience to find and remember your business.
Of course, most domain names work when it comes to SEO, but if you need help choosing a perfect domain name, keep these things in mind:
- Keep it short and simple. Your domain name should be easy to remember. As such, having a long domain name that’s hard to spell out or remember isn’t the way to go — a domain name with six to 14 characters that’s easy to spell is ideal.
- Stick to a .com extension. If the .com option is available, snag it. It’s the most popular domain name extension that many people expect for website names. If your chosen domain name ending in .com isn’t available, you can opt for other trusted domain name extensions such as .net and .org.
- Make your domain unique. Your domain name should stand out from your competitors and uniquely represent your brand and what it stands for.
Related: What is a domain name? Everything you need to know about domain names
Ensure a positive user experience
User experience is now a ranking factor. In fact, Google prioritizes sites that provide a positive user experience when providing results to a search query. Keep these guidelines in mind to create a positive user experience:
- Have a mobile-friendly website. Most people use mobile devices when surfing the internet. Ensure that your website loads smoothly on both desktop and mobile. Testing your site for mobile-friendliness is easy using the Mobile-Friendly test from Google Search Console.
- Ensure your pages load faster. Pages that load slowly on desktop and mobile devices provide a bad user experience, negatively impacting your rankings in SERPs.
- Avoid intrusive pop-ups. While you can’t completely avoid using ads, avoid intrusive pop-up ads as they lead to a poor user experience
- Secure your site. Use an SSL certificate (HTTPS) to prevent hackers from accessing your site and your users’ data.
- Make your content readable. Ensure that users (no matter the device) can easily read your content. Also, use a perfect design that reflects your brand.
Related: How to add an SSL to your website — The ultimate guide on SSLs
Choose the best website structure for your business
A website’s structure involves how a website’s pages are organized, how they’re connected, and how to navigate to different pages.
You can select from three site structure options:
- Linear or sequential structure. Best for small websites that want to present a product, service or brand in a linear manner that follows a logical path of actions.
- Network structure. Also called web-linked, this structure allows any site page to be accessed from any other page. It’s ideal for websites with a few pages that are interconnected.
- Hierarchical. This site structure follows a hierarchy of categories. It’s the most popular among the three options and works on any website.
Why is site structure important for SEO?
When learning SEO, it’s important to understand that a solid website structure is key to Google’s goal of serving up the most relevant search results. Here’s why:
- A logical site structure enables search engines to evaluate your pages when providing results to a search query.
- Having a solid site structure helps handle many technical SEO aspects responsible for crawling and indexing.
- An effective site structure makes it easier for a search engine to understand what your page is all about so it can show it to relevant search queries.
- It makes it easier for search engines to locate new pages.
Above all, an effective site structure facilitates a positive user experience. And user experience is a ranking factor for SEO.
Create a solid URL structure
A mentioned earlier, a URL is the internet address people use to access a web page. It consists of a protocol, a domain name and a path to a specific page on the website. To better understand these components, look at the below URL:
- Protocol: https:/
- Domain: godaddy.com
- Path: /garage/invest-in-seo/
The best URL structure varies based on the type of website. For example, URL structures for ecommerce sites will vary from those of a blog website. Likewise, a URL for a social network will vary from that of a government website.
The above basic URL structure applies when creating a proper URL structure, regardless of the website’s purpose.
How does URL structure impact SEO?
URLs act as the link between your content and your users. That said, here’s how URLs can impact SEO:
- User experience. An effective URL structure should allow users and search engines to understand what a page is all about. For example, the example URL above clearly describes what website users will find when they reach their destination. This enhances the user experience, which is a Google ranking factor.
- Rankings. An effective URL helps search engine bots to crawl and index your website when providing search results to a search query.
That means optimizing your URLs can help improve Google PageRank (PR). Of course, avoid keyword stuffing in your URLs, as this is considered a black-hat SEO technique that will hurt your SEO efforts.
Follow these best practices for SEO-friendly URLs:
- Use HTTPS protocol to make it more secure.
- Ensure the URL is relevant.
- Keep your URL short and simple.
- Avoid keyword stuffing.
- Avoid stop words (the, and, of, or, etc.) in your URL.
- Use lowercase letters.
Related: Domain SEO — Can including keywords in domain names improve search ranking?
Have a WordPress website? WordPress offers powerful in-built tools to help you optimize your content for SEO, and you can use SEO plugins to turbocharge your SEO efforts. Popular SEO plugins like Yoast and Rankmath offer great suggestions and an overview of what you should change on each page to boost its ranking capabilities.
Conduct keyword research
You can hardly talk about SEO without mentioning keywords. Users enter keywords when searching for something online, and search engines use keywords to find the information that matches the search query.
Keyword research involves finding and analyzing phrases people use when searching for something on search engines. You can boost your search rankings by sprinkling keywords naturally throughout your website content because doing so tells search engines that your website has information that’s relevant to their search.
When your article ranks higher for the right keywords, Google will show it to users when they use those keywords to find a solution or information online. That can mean more traffic for your website.
Note: Keyword research also helps create an effective content marketing strategy, of which SEO plays an integral role.
Benefits of keyword research
In addition to improving your SEO efforts, conducting keyword research can:
- Provide insight into current market trends. Effective keyword research can provide great insight into your marketing efforts. It provides an opportunity to understand what your audience is looking for and the current relevant topics.
- Help develop authority and trust. The insights you glean into current marketing trends can help you build your brand as an authority leader in your industry. You can use your keyword research findings to create the industry-specific content that people are searching for now.
- Increase organic traffic. Identifying the best keywords and optimizing your content for those keywords will help your content rank higher on SERPs. The higher your content ranks for your target keywords, the more traffic you’ll get.
Related: How to do SEO keyword research to drive traffic to your website
What is search intent?
Search intent refers to what the user intends to solve when using specific keywords on a search engine.
Identifying user intent is crucial if you want your page to rank higher on search engines like Google.
Keywords can have different meanings for different users. That means even after identifying your target keywords, you have to interpret them to ensure they match the user’s search intent.
Search intent is divided into three categories:
- Navigational. The user knows what they want to find (e.g., a specific domain, page, address, product, etc.).
- Informational. The user wants to learn something or is looking for answers. The searches might be a question or phrases like why, where, what, how, etc.
- Transactional. The user is searching for something they intend to buy. That means they know what they want and are probably looking for the best product page.
The easiest way to identify the user’s intent for a keyword is to enter the keyword into a search engine and note the type of results that show up.
How to do keyword research
When performing keyword research, look for words and phrases that you can rank for on the first page of SERPs. Here’s how to find them:
Ask yourself some questions, including:
- What are the main themes/topics/focus areas on your website, especially on its most popular pages?
- What do you want to achieve with your content?
- What terms would you enter into a search engine to get your website among the top results?
- What search terms do you think your audience uses?
Then, ask other people what terms or phrases they would use to search for your website or pages without using the domain.
Make a list of all the keywords you find valuable. You can refine them in the next steps.
Study your competitors’ keywords
Another great way to identify keywords to use on your site is by checking what keywords your competitors rank for. The first step in this process is to identify your competitors — use your brainstormed keyword list to identify your competitors by searching one of your keywords to see what sites appear on top of SERPs.
Once you identify your competitor sites, leverage competitor tools like Ahrefs Site Explorer to analyze the site’s pages with the most traffic and the keywords they are targeting. Once you identify these keywords, create better content around them to increase your chances of outranking your competitors.
Related: How to stand out from your competitors on Google Search
Analyze customer communications
Mine for additional keywords by digging through customer communications. Look for common questions from your customers and the terms they’re using to ask them.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter also can provide valuable audience insights. Pay keen attention to what customers are saying about your products and services to identify keywords to target.
Research related terms
Complete your keyword research by researching related terms. Enter a keyword on a search engine to see additional terms people might be using.
You’ve probably seen this when searching for something on Google — you notice a section with searches related to what you’re searching for as you scroll down the SERPs. These keywords can add to your bucket of target terms and phrases.
Optimize content for search engines
Once you’re done with keyword research, it’s time to create content and optimize it for search engines.
People turn to search engines to look for high-quality, relevant and engaging content on a subject. To create valuable content, find unique ideas to address users’ questions. Then present them in a well-structured manner to ensure users and search engines can access them easily.
Research your audience’s needs
You’re trying to identify what your users want and need, which should be easy if you’ve already done the keyword research. You’ll want to be as specific as possible to narrow your field of competitors for the same search terms.
When you focus on a niche, it’s easier to create unique, detailed content that has a better chance of ranking higher in the SERPs for long-tail keywords.
Try to tackle the content from different angles and be as thorough as possible.
Research other ranking content
Creating content that can rank higher on SERPs means understanding what users are looking for and creating better content than what is already available on the internet. While keyword research helps you understand search intent, you can get additional insights by using the top-ranking pages as a proxy.
When analyzing the top-ranking pages in your niche, pay attention to the content type, format and angle. The information you get will help you choose the best content type/format and find a unique way to present the content.
Create content for users
Here’s the heart of how to do SEO: creating the actual content.
Outline, draft and edit
Start by creating an outline. Include a general overview of your content headings, subheadings and format. Of course, the format will vary depending on the type of content.
Once your outline is ready, create the first draft of your content. You’re going for unique content that fully covers the topic and showcases your expertise in the niche. Find engaging sub-topics that even the top-ranking pages don’t address.
Here are ideas to help create unique content that your audience will find valuable:
- Expand on popular existing content with anecdotes and examples gleaned from your professional experience.
- Give your content a unique perspective. For instance, you might include quotes from your customers that support the ideas you’re covering.
- Gather original research and share your findings in a variety of formats (e.g., blog posts, videos, infographics).
- Compile the questions you get most often from your customers into an FAQ that you keep up-to-date.
- Create a photo gallery that shows your products/services in action, with keyword-optimized captions.
Next comes editing, where you review your content for factual and grammatical errors and readability issues. If you’re unsure what to look out for when editing your content, consider asking for feedback from a colleague or a friend.
Make your content SEO-friendly
Optimizing your website content helps both users and search engines. Basic SEO practices — such as crafting an effective SEO title, meta description and subheadings — tell users at a glance what they’ll find when they click your link in the SERPs. And these SEO elements give search engines the information they need to index and rank your site’s contents.
Write your SEO title, meta description and subheads
In most cases, visitors look at the page’s SEO title and meta description to determine whether they will click on a page in the SERPs.
- SEO title: Also called the HTML title tag, these are the words that look like the headline on the search result. Search engines give more emphasis on the early words in your SEO title, so consider putting your focus keyword at the beginning or near the start of the page title.
- Meta description: These are the words below the headline that describe what’s on the page. Like the SEO title, visitors see the first words in the meta description and will decide whether to click on the page based on the keywords they see.
Once they click the page, your subheadings and content formatting will influence how long they stay.
Use H1, H2 and H3 headings
Heading tags are like ranks of duty, with H1 being the most important, followed by H2 and so forth. The information on each tag relates to the main topic, although each subheading will be unique.
While headings alone don’t have a huge impact on SEO, they can help visitors find direct answers to a subject.
Here’s a simple breakdown to help understand what H1, H2 and H3 headings do:
- H1: Includes the page’s target keyword(s) to help explain what it’s all about. This might be the headline on a blog page.
- H2: Adds structure to the page, breaking up blocks of content and making it easy for visitors to understand what they’ll find in that section.
- H3: Helps further break up the content to make it more scannable.
Though headings might not make or break your SEO efforts, they do help search engines understand what’s on the page and they enhance the user experience — keeping visitors on your site, which helps with SEO.
Optimize images and media
In addition to optimizing your written content, it’s important to make visual content like images and video search-friendly. There are many best practices for this type of optimization, but for the beginner just learning how to do SEO, start here:
- Select images that align to the story you’re telling. Remember, search engines crawl for relevant content, and that includes images.
- Use the correct file format. In most cases, you’ll want to use images in JPEG or PNG format. They are easily compressed and render well on most devices.
- Decrease image size. Use a free image compression tool to make images smaller so they load faster.
- Add image alt tags. Give your image a file name and “alt text,” including keywords if relevant, that accurately describes it. This also enhances accessibility.
- Include video transcripts. They make videos more accessible, help search engines understand what the video’s about, and provide another opportunity to include target keywords and links to related content on your site.
Taking these few steps can make a big difference for your on-page SEO efforts.
Keep updating your content
Since search engines aim to provide up-to-date and relevant information to users, make sure you keep your content fresh. Schedule a few hours each month to review your content for outdated material and update accordingly.
Measuring SEO Performance
Creating an effective SEO strategy, keeping track of Google algorithm changes, and consistently adhering to SEO best practices is the best path to increasing your website’s search rankings.
And part of that process involves looking at what’s working and what’s not. That’s where Google Analytics and Google Search Console come into play.
Setting up Google Analytics is a great way to analyze SEO results on your site. Among other factors, adding Google Analytics to your website can show you:
- the number of visits to a page
- how long visitors stay on your site
- how many of your visitors convert
Getting started with Google Analytics isn’t too complicated. You first need to create an account and add an Account Name to set it up. This can be your business name or a generic account name.
Once you set up your account, add a property (the website name and URL). After that, go to the data-sharing setting and select your options. Lastly, add the tracking code to your website to connect it to your new Google Analytics account.
Related: How to track user behavior with Google Analytics
Google Search Console
Google Search Console helps analyze your website’s SEO performance and how users find you on Google. In other words, this free service from Google will help you understand and monitor your site’s presence in Google search results.
The information you get helps identify opportunities and areas to work on to improve your position on SERPs.
Related: Using Google Analytics and Google Search Console to find out what’s bringing people to your website
Metrics to help measure SEO results
Tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console will provide a wealth of information about your website’s performance — so much info that it’s common for those just learning how to do SEO to get overwhelmed. When you’re just starting out, focus on a handful of key metrics.
Keyword performance in SERPs
Know where your target keywords currently rank on search results pages so you can make adjustments as necessary.
Higher organic traffic indicates organic search visibility for your site — this is the goal. By focusing on organic traffic from sources such as search engines and social networks, you look at your website’s visibility for your target keywords.
Pages per session
Pages per session is an important user engagement metric that measures the average number of pages users visit before leaving your site. If users visit more pages on your site per session, your content is engaging and relevant to the visitors. It also indicates that your navigation is user-friendly.
What are the pages that make visitors lose interest in your site? This is another important metric to track, as it might mean that those pages need reworking.
Reasons that can increase the exit rate on your pages include:
- Lack of clear layout and content structure
- Not having clear internal links and clear calls-to-action that guide visitors to relevant pages
- Not adding visuals for better engagement
Organic leads and sales
Lastly, the most important factor you can use to measure SEO success is by looking at whether your efforts have an impact on your bottom line. In other words, does your content help you
achieve your set goals?
This helps track your organic traffic and goals by landing pages. In other words, what percentage of users from an organic search convert?
If you’re satisfied with the information you get from the above reports, you’re doing just fine with SEO. However, if you’re not generating organic leads and sales, it’s time to rework your strategy or change your content structure.
How to do SEO: Next steps
Search engine optimization ranks No. 1 among strategies to drive more organic traffic to your website. Understanding where and how to start is only the beginning. Once you feel comfortable with the basics, explore more technical SEO tactics and even consider hiring an expert to accelerate your growth.
Above all, remember that SEO is a long game that requires patience and continuous learning to yield consistent results.