From why it matters to the latest best practices, here’s everything you need to know about search engine optimization (SEO).
Here, you’ll find:
- What SEO is
- Why SEO is an important part of digital marketing
- What makes up a good SEO strategy
- SEO trends worth keeping an eye on
It’s no secret that, in today’s digital marketing landscape, it’s all about the search engine. With consistent algorithm updates and industry pivots, it can be challenging to stay ahead of the game.
Still, earning a top spot on the search engine results page (SERP) is the ultimate goal.
But it doesn’t come easy. The algorithm changes often, and new competitors can crop up anytime. Having a site that’s optimized for search engines can be the game-changing factor that helps your brand stand out.
For the full 411 on SEO, let’s dive in.
What is SEO?
SEO is a process that helps search engines understand and provide helpful information to users as they search. This is a continuous digital marketing practice that involves consistently improving and optimizing your website to bring in targeted visitors. The goal of SEO is to rank organically for relevant searches to your website (with the bonus of not having to pay for ads).
As we’ve mentioned before, following SEO best practices helps ensure your site is set up for success. These strategies also add value to your overall brand while showing prospects and users that your company is one they can trust.
With that in mind, here are 5 SEO best practices to keep in your tool belt.
5 SEO Best Practices
1. Keyword research
This involves identifying the terms and phrases that your target audience is using to search for your products or services.
There are a ton of keyword research tools you can use to find relevant and high-volume keywords, and incorporate them strategically into your website’s content.
2. High-quality content
Create compelling and valuable content that satisfies the search intent of your target audience. Ensure that your content is well-written, informative, and unique.
No. 1 comes back into play here. Be sure to use relevant keywords naturally throughout all types of content, but avoid keyword stuffing, as it can negatively impact your rankings.
3. Optimized meta tags
Craft unique and descriptive tags that accurately summarize the content of each page. These should also have relevant keywords, but keep the tags concise and appealing to users.
Mobile usage continues to grow, so ensuring that your website is mobile-friendly and responsive is key for SEO. Experiment with your website’s design and layout for different screen sizes, improve loading times, and provide a seamless user experience across devices.
This involves using high-quality backlinks from reputable and relevant websites. Seek opportunities to guest post, collaborate with influencers or industry experts, and engage in content marketing to attract natural backlinks. Focus on quality rather than quantity, as authoritative backlinks can also significantly impact your website’s rankings.
Keep in mind that these five best practices are just scratching the surface of a well-rounded SEO strategy. One of the most effective SEO methods is to publish original, relevant content that can inform people or answer their questions. Unfortunately, SEO isn’t quite as simple as that. And having quality content is only the beginning.
Pro tip: When creating content, avoid keyword stuffing. This practice of over-inserting the keyword you’re trying to rank for is frowned upon. Plus, Google can recognize when someone is clearly mentioning a search term repeatedly and downgrade your ranking.
The 3 Pillars of SEO
The 3 pillars of SEO are interrelated concepts that work together to create a solid SEO foundation:
- On-page SEO
- Off-page SEO
- Technical SEO
Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn.
On-page SEO (also known as on-site SEO) refers to the practice of optimizing elements on your website to improve visibility and relevance to search engines.
The content on the page plays a huge role here, as it’s the main thing search engines craw to understand what’s on your website. On-page SEO involves optimizing your website’s content, meta tags, URLs, headings, images, and internal linking structure.
This optimization helps ensure that your website is technically sound, user-friendly, and contains relevant and high-quality content that matches users’ search queries.
Off-page SEO (or off-site SEO) involves activities that take place outside of your website but still have an impact on its search engine rankings.
The primary focus of off-page optimization is to build high-quality backlinks from other reputable websites, indicating to potential customers that your website is valuable and trustworthy.
The quantity and quality of backlinks, as well as factors like social signals and brand mentions, play a crucial role in search engine rankings.
Technical SEO and optimization involves improving the, well, technical aspects of your website to enhance its crawlability, indexability, and overall performance.
This includes optimizing website speed, implementing structured data markup, ensuring proper XML sitemaps, optimizing for mobile devices, and addressing issues like duplicate content, broken links, and server errors.
Technical optimization helps search engines understand and interpret your website’s content better, resulting in improved visibility and rankings.
How search engines work
Google (along with all other search platforms such as Bing) has a search engine algorithm that takes hundreds to thousands of different aspects into consideration when a user enters keywords or a query.
That’s why, when we say “search engine optimization,” we’re talking about setting up your site to show search engines that your brand is relevant, trustworthy, and legitimate in relation to your industry.
You can learn about the process and guidelines Google adheres to make sure their algorithm “meet high standards of relevance and quality” here. However, search engines keep marketers on their toes by regularly rolling out tweaks and updates without much (or any) advanced notice.
Since it launched, Google has gone from making only a handful of algorithm updates every now and then to rolling out thousands of changes each year. These updates come with varying levels of impact on the search engine results page, or SERP, according to Search Engine Journal.
Key factors that help determine which results will appear for your query are:
- Meaning of your query
- Relevance of web pages
- Content quality
- Usability of web pages
- Context and settings
How Core Web Vitals affect your SEO
In 2021, Google officially rolled out Core Web Vitals. Basically, this is a new set of ranking metrics that take things like speed, responsiveness and visual stability of pages on your site into account.
As the search engine itself explains, “the Core Web Vitals report shows how your pages perform, based on real world usage data (sometimes called field data).” Core Web Vitals are made up of three specific measurements: Largest Contentful Paint (loading), First Input Delay (interactivity), and Cumulative Layout Shift (visual stability).
Core Web Vitals are graded on a scale of pass, needs improvement, or fail. The way your site scores can impact how you’ll rank on the SERP.
Pro tip: As Google enhances its machine learning capabilities, Search Engine Journal advises marketers to keep “semantic SEO” in mind in 2021. Basically, this means choosing topics relevant to your audience, discerning searcher intent, and making your resource as rich and in-depth as possible.
How to start your SEO off on a clean slate with technical SEO
Whether your site is brand-new or has been around for a decade or more, it’s never too late to put good SEO practices in place. Even if everything looks fine and dandy, websites can have hidden technical SEO errors.
These may not appear or be visible to the end user, but Google’s crawlers can detect it in the website’s code. Depending on the issue, this could cause your site to get penalized.
Put simply: If too many “red flags” exist on a site, Google will value it less than a competitor’s site. Because of this, your site may not rank well despite having original, informative, and high-quality content.
Other issues Google dings your site for include:
- 404 error pages (aka broken links)
- Missing or duplicate meta tags
- Pagination issues (such as too many indexable URLs)
- Thin content
To avoid Google undervaluing your site, making sure it’s “clean” is an important first step. Once you have a solid base to build off of, you can focus on content strategy and creation, links, schema markup, and other optimizations.
This stage can be time-consuming. You may want to look into having your developer crawl the site and conduct a wellness check or getting an SEO audit from a marketing agency.
Pro tip: Use this SEO-friendly website checklist for a quick-and-easy way to see how well your site is set up for organic search engine success.
Building an SEO-friendly website
A website with good SEO tactics in place often starts with proper site architecture. This refers to the way your site is structured, how users navigate it, and the ways pages are reached. The quicker and more straightforward your site navigation, the easier it’ll be for visitors to get the information they’re looking for.
- Test out new site elements on a staging site before pushing them live
- Implement redirects along with meta tags to avoid losing any SEO rankings you’ve already built up
- Update all buttons, logos, and forms
- Make sure there’s no duplicate content
SEO through quality content
Whether your business is ecommerce, financial services, or something in between, having well-written content on your site is beneficial for so many reasons.
Not only does it strengthen your SEO, but it can educate your audience, show that you’re a thought leader in your industry, and help attract more visitors to your brand.
When you’re crafting a quality content marketing strategy, key steps include:
- Fleshing out your personas
- Defining your voice and tone
- Determining the keywords you want to cover through content
- Deciding the best brainstorming, writing, and editing process
- Prioritizing promotion
- Regularly analyzing performance
If you want your content to help boost your SEO, it’s important to pay attention to grammar and spelling. One way to think of it is: If an English teacher were to grade your website like a paper, would they give you an A, C, or an F?
Google’s algorithm will read your content like an English teacher, and will also grade it (to a degree).
Tips for creating quality content
Once you’ve determined your relevant keywords and search terms, it’s time to work on creating the content.
Pro tip: When creating content, avoid keyword stuffing. This practice of over-inserting the keyword you’re trying to rank for is frowned upon. Plus, Google can recognize when someone is clearly mentioning a search term repeatedly and downgrade your ranking.
Once you feel confident about your content output and strategy, it’s wise to plan on regular content audits. This will allow you to identify old posts, high-performing pieces, and other content-related factors that will impact SEO.
Search engines favor new, robust content. By continuing to optimize pages, you can benefit from the long history attached to a URL while making sure the info on your site is timely, accurate, and up to date.
As Moz explains, meta tags provide information about the webpage in its HTML. This info is dubbed “metadata.” While it’s not visible to your readers, it’s key nonetheless. Meta tags live in a page’s source code, and it’s used to tell search engines what a page is all about.
Having pages with proper meta tags (which includes a title and description that accurately represent the page’s content) can impact not only the ranking of your page, but your clickthrough rate (CTR) and bounce rates as well.
When the preview for a page is accurate and lines up with the page’s content, those in search of what you’re offering already have a good idea of what they’re going to get from that particular page.
Pro tip: Make sure your site features an SEO-friendly blog by leveraging internal and external links, posting in an easily readable format, including a descriptive URL, and having designated keywords.
No matter how high quality the content or well designed the page, if your site features large blocks of plain text, you’re in danger of having eyes glaze over and people bouncing from your page.
Much like the metadata, header tags (the most common being H1, H2, and H3) serve as a kind of outline or table of contents for each page. See that “Header tags” line above? It’s an H3 header tag.
These tags also serve to emphasize what a paragraph or section will be about. This makes it easy for readers to scroll to the parts of your page that particularly interest them. Header tags are also tied to SEO. Search engines can weigh these headings and subheadings more than the paragraph copy in terms of importance.
If your blog title is H1, your headings are H2, and your subheadings are H3, they’ll be prioritized in that same order when it comes to the search engine. Also worth noting: While header tags extend to H6, most sites stick with H1-H3.
Pro tip: Another way to get an edge over your competition? Conduct a competitor analysis for SEO. Identify their ranking keywords, analyze their content and website, and check out their Google My Business page. This can help you pinpoint areas of weakness you may be able to capitalize on and more.
Linking is an incredibly important aspect to cultivating SEO that ranks you well. Having high-quality, highly relevant backlinks (links from another domain to yours) tells search engines that other sites trust yours, so end users probably can as well.
We’ve talked before about how more backlinks (also called inbound links) from credible sites help you rank higher on the SERP. Think of backlinks like endorsements. They’re used to let Google know your site is valuable and legitimate.
You can encourage backlinks to your site by:
- Publishing unique statistics, survey data, or other exclusive info
- Writing guest blogs or being quoted on other credible websites
- Partnering with influencers in your industry
- Reaching out directly to sites you want backlinks on
When it comes to reaching out, there’s no magic formula. And, like SEO itself, it takes time. Your best bet, when cold-emailing another brand to request a backlink, is to keep the message short, make it personalized, and highlight the benefit for their site, not yours.
For example, if you find a well-known industry site is using outdated stats or content that you happen to have an up-to-date version of, send it to them and see if they’ll replace the older link.
Not all backlinks are good, however. Spammy or “toxic” backlinks can lower your site’s domain authority and your rating. In turn, this lowers how trustworthy your site appears. If there are a bunch of spammy sites linking to yours, Google will treat your site as a terrible one as well. Consider it a “guilty by association” mindset.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent low-quality sites from tanking your SEO rep. Disavowing these toxic sites (which tells Google not to associate these links with your website) is key to maintaining a higher standing with Google.
While external linking is important, internal linking shouldn’t be overlooked. Linking from your own pages to other pages on your site is beneficial in Google’s eyes. It can also be helpful to the end user as well (which, really, is a big reason why search engines value internal links).
Pro tip: When it comes to disavowing backlinks, Google warns that this advanced feature should be used with caution. You only want to disavow links that are sure to reflect negatively on your site. “If used incorrectly,” Google explains, “this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results.”
Schema markup, structured data & rich snippets
Schema is a structured data vocabulary created by the major search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and Yandex). Structured data is what helps these search engines better understand and define what a post or page is about.
This special language can be added to an HTML markup as code to enhance the snippets that appear below your content on the SERP. With schema markup, you can add elements like a publish date, event schedule, or product rating. It can improve your SEO and CTR by adding context to your pages, thus helping you rank better.
This additional content is referred to as “rich snippets.” If a normal snippet merely includes the URL, title tag, and meta description, any additional info is considered a rich snippet.
You can add schema markup to your pages by visiting schema.org, selecting the type of markup that you want to use, and adding the code to your page. If you publish on a site like WordPress, you can add this data via plugins in a snap. Once added, you can test that the structured data was set up properly via Google’s structured data testing tool.
Pro tip: While adding structured data to your pages can boost SEO, adding it doesn’t guarantee that they will show up on the SERP, even if you’ve followed all of the steps correctly.
Tips for local SEO
Local SEO leverages content to answer locally relevant or location-based searches. HubSpot defines local SEO as a way to help businesses “promote their products and services to local prospects and customers.
To gather information for local search, search engines rely on signals such as local content, social profile pages, links, and citations to provide the most relevant local results to the user.”
“Near me” searches, or searches based around a local city or region, are extremely popular these days. In fact, 80% of consumers use search for local information. However, location-based searches are treated slightly differently than a standard search. If you own a local business, have a local blog, et cetera, then you’ll want to keep local SEO in mind.
Optimize for Google Business Profile
One way to do this is by making sure your site is optimized for your Google Business Profile. This search engine feature aims to show that a business is relevant and authentic.
As a bonus, GBP-optimized businesses may show up as a pullout sidebar on the SERP, giving your biz that much more exposure.
Optimizing for GBP entails:
- Creating a verified GBP page for your company
- Garnering authentic online reviews from customers
- Responding to these reviews using location-based info
- Using Google Posts in your account (which allow you to share news and messages on your profile)
Other ways to optimize for local SEO include:
- Publishing location-specific content
- Adding separate location pages to your site (if your brand has locations in multiple cities)
- Making sure your NAP (name, address, and phone number) info is consistent and accurate across the web
Accelerated mobile pages
The majority of searches are now done on mobile devices. In fact, Google rolled out mobile-first indexing in the spring of 2018 to take precedence over its traditional desktop index. Because of this, it’s crucial for your SEO to make sure your entire site is mobile friendly.
Created by Google and Twitter, accelerated mobile pages (AMP) are a critical part of Google’s mobile approach. AMPs feature a more minimalist, stripped-down HTML version of a webpage for quick loading and easy access on mobile devices.
It’s up to you whether or not AMPs are worth it for your business. While they may receive a favorable ranking on the SERP, these pages often don’t have as many elements or designs as regular pages.
AMPs don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. That’s why it’s worth it to explore your options when it comes to enhancing your AMP content for Google Search and customizing these pages to fit your needs.
We often get asked what types of metrics or KPIs are most important to keep track of when it comes to SEO. In terms of core KPIs, we generally look at:
- Organic sessions
- Organic bounce rate
- Average page views per session
- Domain authority/rating
- The number of keywords or search terms ranking in the top 3 results (above the fold, first page)
- Keywords or search terms ranking on page 1 (in spaces 1-10)
- Keywords or search terms ranking in spaces 11-50
The metrics you look at and prioritize will depend on factors like your goals and how long you’ve been actively implementing your SEO strategy.
SEM vs. SEO vs. PPC: How do they compare?
SEO and PPC (both of which we put under the search engine marketing or SEM umbrella) are vital components of a successful digital marketing strategy, each offering unique benefits to businesses seeking online visibility and increased traffic.
Here’s a quick refresher on what each one entails:
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
SEM is a broader term that encompasses both organic SEO and paid advertising. While SEO focuses on organic results, SEM combines paid advertising to gain immediate visibility on search engines. The most common form of SEM is using Google Ads, where advertisers bid on keywords to display their ads on relevant search queries.
SEO is a long-term, organic strategy aimed at increasing a website’s organic visibility in search engines. The primary objective of SEO is to enhance the website’s relevance and authority, thereby attracting more organic traffic.
PPC is a specific payment model used within the broader SEM strategy, where advertisers only pay when a user clicks on their ad. PPC advertising allows businesses to bid on specific keywords or target audiences, with the cost determined by the competitiveness of the chosen keywords.
By understanding the differences between these approaches, you can make informed decisions and develop a comprehensive marketing plan to help you achieve long-term business goals.
White hat vs. black hat SEO
“White hat” and “black hat” are SEO techniques marketers can leverage when optimizing a site. Basically, white hat SEO techniques are ethical, Google-approved methods that are looked favorably upon by search engines. White-hat techniques include publishing high-quality content that speaks to a human audience, implementing a long-term SEO strategy, and including alt tags with your images.
Black hat, on the other hand, refers to methods that attempt to trick search engines by making a site appear more legitimate than it is.
These common SEO mistakes include keyword stuffing, creating blogs for the sole purpose of generating links to other sites, and hiding “invisible text” in the code of your website in an attempt to game the algorithm.
Black hat methods are frowned upon by search engines. While it’s not against the law to use them, they can get your site flagged for violating guidelines or prevented from appearing in search results entirely. Plus, black hat techniques often result in a poor user experience with your website.
Then there’s “grey hat” SEO. These are SEO methods that, while not currently against search engine guidelines, could become viewed as black hat in the future. This includes posting fake reviews, offering incentives for online reviews, and purchasing expired domains for the sole purpose of linking or redirecting to your site.
How visuals enhance SEO
Speaking of alt tags, visuals are another important part of good site SEO.
If you have the bandwidth and budget, experimenting with video content could end up being what sets you apart from your competition on the SERP. Pages with videos are often visited for longer periods of time, and a longer visiting period can only mean good things when it comes to SEO.
In terms of photos, graphics, and other static imagery, Yoast explains that well-chosen images can complement your content and get you a good ranking in image search results.
“Alt tags” are alternative attributes on an image’s img tag. The purpose of this tag is to describe what the image is portraying, which not only helps the search engine understand the image, but it’s used as context for the visually impaired.
Depending on your website platform, it should be easy to add SEO-enhancing alt tags to your images as well as a title and meta description for your videos.
Pro tip: Videos can also be optimized by choosing an eye-catching thumbnail image, investing in paid ads for promotion, and adding captions.
Leverage SEO tools
Your search engine optimization maintenance doesn’t have to be a totally do-it-yourself process. Tools like Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools help easily monitor how your site is currently performing on the respective search engines.
Once you set your site up on these platforms, you can view reports that’ll show you how your search performance is trending and more. They can also illuminate any issues that need fixing, like technical errors on your site that you may not be aware of.
Why is site speed important for SEO?
Site speed, especially on mobile, is another highly important aspect with regards to SEO. That’s partially because a site that takes even a few seconds to load can cause a significant number of visitors to immediately bounce.
But speed doesn’t just matter to users — it also matters to search engines. Google has been upfront for years about how page speed is a ranking factor for them (though, admittedly, not a hugely significant one). You can test out how speedy your pages are with Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.
Notable SEO statistics:
- The top three Google search results get 54% of all clicks.
- 30% of all mobile searches are on location.
- In 2023, Google is reported to have more than 92% of the search engine market share worldwide.
- More than half of U.S. consumers say they research products using a search engine before deciding whether or not to buy.
- 71% of marketers say using strategic keywords was their No. 1 strategy for SEO.
- The average top-ranking page also ranks in the top 10 search results for nearly 1,000 other relevant keywords.
- Google search, Google Image, and Google Maps account for nearly 93% of global traffic.
Search engine optimization is important when it comes to ranking on the SERP and growing your reach. But, at the end of the day, the goal of a search engine is to connect users with the answers they seek.
As long as you (or your chosen SEO agency) follow the above tips — and have a fast website with high-quality content that’s engaging, unique, current, and helpful — you’ll be well on your way to boasting successful, strong SEO.
This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2020.