Beginner’s Guide To Search Engine Optimization Basics (2021)

Brandon LazovicMarch 23, 2021

As the search engine optimization industry continues to grow, improving websites and their digital presence has been a large focus to help companies achieve success in the search results pages of Google and Bing. Some sites have been going through massive revisions, especially because of the greater exposure and new tools that have been made available to properly perform SEO.

SEO has continued to improve and search engine algorithms have changed over the years, focusing on better sites showing up in the SERPs to satisfy user intent. This has led to a greater need for websites to have good website content, a clean design, and unique / relevant content.

There is no easy way to rank in the top spots of search engines. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a website that will attract the visitors that are the best fit for your web pages. This is what makes a website successful organically and will give you the higher rankings and traffic you’re looking for.

Read our latest guide to learn about Search Engine Optimization, why it’s important, and all the things you should consider when optimizing your website from a content marketing and technical perspective.

What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

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Search engine optimization (SEO) is a method of boosting a website's rankings in search results and attracting more organic (non-paid) traffic.

The origins of SEO can be traced back to the 1990s, when the first search engines were created. It is now an effective marketing tool and a fast developing industry.

Search engine optimization is focused only on organic search results, and not paid advertising placement like PPC. 

SEO can be bucketed in three different areas: technical, on-page content, and link building. 

Why Is SEO Important? 

SEO is important because it serves the purpose of pairing your web pages with relevant results that people search for on Google. You can see what terms and phrases people are searching on Google and match those results with optimized web pages to drive organic search traffic and conversions to your website. 

You’ll find through research that the more people search for information using the same keywords and intent, the more likely they are to land on your webpage if it matches that intent, or answers that user’s question. 

SEO is also important for improving your company’s digital presence and driving revenue without actively paying for placements on search engines (in other words, it’s free advertising!), especially as more users are shopping and conducting research on products or services digitally. 

There’s a reason why many businesses have invested heavily in SEO agencies, or hiring an internal SEO specialist to manage their digital presence. 

Search Engine Optimization Basics

Below we’ll walk through all the basics you need to know about search engine optimization. Here are some common terms to know before diving into the rest of the guide: 

  • Index: Google's index contains all of the web sites that it is aware of. Each page's index entry identifies the page's content as well as its location (URL). When Google fetches a page, reads it, and adds it to the index, it is said to be indexed. 
  • Crawl: crawling is the method of searching the internet for new or modified web sites. Google detects URLs by following links, reading sitemaps, and using a number of other tools. Google crawls the site in search of new sites, which it then indexes (when appropriate).
  • Crawler - A program that crawls (fetches) the internet and indexes the sites it finds. The crawler used by Google is known as Googlebot. Googlebot actively crawls the internet.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO): is the method of making the website more search engine friendly and improving the organic visibility of websites. 
  • Queries: search terms that users type into a search engine to find information or other websites within search results pages. 

How Search Engines Index Your Website

Technically, a web search is a lot like finding things on the Internet, except the items are not linked to each other, and you may need to browse a few websites before you actually find the site you're looking for. 

Search engines are basically website directories that help you find the most relevant information on the Internet. For example, when you're trying to find your next big party, the best websites to look for are those that have information about the best parties and events in your city, because they satisfy that search intent. 

Search engines employ the use of bots, or spiders, that “crawl” all of the websites it has in its database to showcase all relevant websites that are related to a search. 

It pairs these websites with certain keyword phrases, and crawls site pages using a number of different methods, ranging from directives you set as a webmaster (like noindex tags and canonicals), as well as external and internal links to other pages. 

Search Engine Crawling Basics

It's free and easy to have your website included in Google's search results. It’s a completely automatic search engine that uses web crawlers to actively search the web for new sites to index. In reality, the vast majority of the websites are discovered and added automatically as Google's bots crawl the web, rather than being manually submitted for inclusion. 

This is the same on other major search engines like Bing or DuckDuckGo. 

Crawling is the mechanism by which search engines actively crawl all of the internet's webpages.

They use tiny programs such as crawlers or bots to follow hyperlinks, find new sites and existing pages they already crawled in the past to update its database. 

Search Engine Indexing Basics

Once crawled, search engines will attempt to understand and categorize the pages before storing them in the index.

When an internet user enters a search query, the search engine scans the index for the right answers. If that web page matches that search query, it will be displayed as a result in Google’s search results pages (SERPs), depending on if it meets the right criteria based on the parameters that are set in Google’s search algorithm. 

Black Hat Vs. White Hat SEO Tactics

When employing certain tactics to improve your website’s visibility, there are certain shades of ethics regarding what types of methods adhere to Google’s webmaster guidelines, and which ones violate those guidelines. We’ll walk through these differences below: 

Black Hat SEO

Blackhat SEO is a compilation of unethical (and typically spammy) methods used to boost a website's ranks.

These tactics will get you to the top of the search pages in a short period of time, but search engines will most likely penalize and blacklist your website sooner or later because they violate Google’s guidelines.

When black hat techniques are used, there will always be the risk of penalties from Google and other search engines or even a potential blacklisting that will stop your website from appearing in the SERPs until you resolve those violations.

If a website gets banned or penalized, its rankings in the search results will go down or disappear. This will negatively affect the amount of organic traffic you can drive to your website. 

Although most of the violations may appear rather small, the consequences are severe, so you should strive to remain in compliance with Google’s webmaster guidelines and adhere to white hat SEO techniques. 

White Hat SEO

White Hat SEO applies to all of the traditional SEO strategies that obey the rules and guidelines. It's a long-term plan in which strong rankings come as a result of good optimization, high-quality content, and a user-centric approach.

Though most SEO experts believe that “white hat” is the way to go, there are differing viewpoints on the acceptability of different link-building strategies (including link buying).

In a white hat SEO approach, business owners are advised to write quality content, build trust with their readers, and use search and content optimization to stay visible on search engines. White hat SEO techniques always apply for every business, regardless of its niche.

White hat SEO ensures the sites don’t violate any rules. For instance, Google recommends you not to rank your site for anything that is in violation of its search engine guidelines, not to keyword stuff or hide content from users, or build unnatural backlinks to your website. You should stick to your customers, business goals, and satisfying their intent in a natural way that’s beneficial to both users and your business. 

Biggest Factors For Ranking On Google

Below we’ll explore the biggest factors that should be considered when ranking on Google. 

Keyword Research

Keyword research is one of the most important aspects of ensuring your site ranks on Google. 

You should be able to identify your niche and what sub-topics you should write about to flesh out the amount of content your website has in your industry, as well as generate well optimized SEO content briefs.

Keyword research will also help you find the most relevant keywords that generate search volume and help you to flesh out your content strategy. 

Primary Keyword

The primary keyword is the main phrase that your web page should be targeting when writing out your content. This is found by conducting keyword research. 

Secondary Keywords

Secondary keywords are the other phrases that serve as “sub-topics” that roll up to your main topic of the page. 

Keyword Research Tools

There are many keyword research tools that you can use to help find your primary and secondary keywords. These types of tools will display information such as monthly searches for terms, what websites rank for these terms, how competitive they are to rank for, and more. The main ones to consider are: 

Long Tail Keywords

Many keyword analysis guides advocate concentrating on long-tail keywords, which are more descriptive and usually contain longer phrases (4 or more words).

Long-tail keywords are simpler to identify and integrate in your content strategy. Since the question is more detailed, the recipient is more likely to be farther along in the buyer's path. 

They’re also estimated to account for roughly 70% of all queries submitted on search engines. Not only is it easier to rank for them, but you can better identify the user intent or their place in the buyer’s journey because long-tail queries are more specific in nature compared to short tail phrases. 

Short Tail Keywords

Short tail keywords, on the other hand, usually consist of 1-2 keywords and make up the majority search volume on the web. 

Short tail keywords aren’t always ideal to target because it’s hard to determine the keyword intent and match an appropriate page that meets that intent. 

They’re also highly competitive and difficult to rank for, so if your website isn’t highly authoritative, chances are you won’t rank well. 

Search Volume

Search volume for keywords can be found via the listed keyword research tools above. These show the amount of searches per month a phrase gets, and should be referenced to ensure that you’re targeting the right content that will actually drive organic traffic to your website. 

Keyword Intent

Lastly, you want to ensure that your content meets the right user intent to satisfy a reader’s pain point or question. We can bucket keyword intent into four different categories: 

  • Navigational - searching for a brand or company
  • Informational - looking to answer high-level questions or general info
  • Transactional - looking to make an online purchase
  • Commercial - performing research before purchasing a product or service

Most user intents fall under these categories and should be considered when creating pages or optimizing content for SEO. The more effectively you can create a page that matches the intent of a user for a query, the better the chances are that you’ll rank well on search engines. 

On-Page SEO Optimization

Now that we’ve walked through the basics of keyword research, next we’ll explore the most important on-page SEO elements to consider when optimizing your content for search engines and keyword rankings. 

H1s

H1 Tags in SEO are the visible titles found on a web page. You want to make sure the H1 describes what your article is all about, and includes the primary keyword that you’re optimizing for as part of your initial keyword research. 

Page Title

Page title tags, or meta titles, are the titles that display for results on Google’s search results pages. They’re very similar to H1s, but don’t actually appear on page as content. You want to ensure that your page titles include your primary keyword and your brand name. They should also be optimized to entice users to click through to your web page from Google.

Meta Description

A meta description is an HTML tag that defines and summarizes the contents of your website. It also only appears on search results pages. 

For example, if you were writing a book and included descriptions on the front and back covers, it would make it easier for readers to understand the contents. A meta description serves a similar purpose and is used to entice users to visit your web page, and should include a clear call to action.

URL

URLs that are SEO friendly are those that are built to satisfy the needs of consumers and search engines. URLs that are designed for SEO are usually short and keyword-rich. SEO friendly URLs should avoid keywords that are redundant or “keyword stuffed.” Best practice is to keep your URL short, include a primary keyword, and make sure it matches the overall intent of the page. 

Subheads (H2s and H3s)

Google also looks at subheads to determine the relevance of a web page and figure out where it should rank, or what queries it should rank for. 

Subheads don’t carry as much weight as a H1 or meta title, but they should include your secondary keywords and flesh out your main topic or purpose of your web page. 

They also tell Google, and users, what the hierarchy of your web page is. For example, you don’t want to include multiple H1s on your page. Or if your H1 is at the top of your page, you wouldn’t want to include an additional H1 further down the page with H2s and H3s in between. 

You can nest H3s within H2 headers, if those subheads roll up as sub-topics to the portion of content your H2 embodies. Nesting subheads should be done sensibly, to help Google and users understand the flow of your content. 

Related Keywords

LSI Keywords, or related keywords, help Google determine the relevance of your web page. These also carry less weight, but target synonyms of your primary topic, or include common keywords that are associated with that content. These types of keywords aren’t typically used within subheads, but rather the main body / paragraphs of your written content. 

Body Content

Body content is important for SEO. Google typically rewards long-form content (2,000 words or more), and information that adequately serves the intent of users. 

Your content should be better than all of your competitors. It should cover information and remain up-to-date. It should also include expertise or unique data that’s original and not available on hundreds of other websites. 

Interlinking

Internal links are links that go from one page on a domain to a different page on the same domain. They are commonly used in the main navigation of a website. These types of links are useful for three reasons: They allow users to easily navigate a website. They help establish information hierarchy for the given website. They also help in boosting your user experience by enticing users to continue navigating to other pages instead of leaving your website.

By creating internal links, your website ensures that users can easily browse all pages within your website. Internal linking enables users to navigate through a website quickly and improve the overall user experience. 

Interlinking also serves two other purposes: helping Google find other related content to index in its search results, as well as pass SEO value to other pages to help them rank better. 

A combination of pagination and infinite scrolling can help with the discoverability and indexation of your website content if you have large category or ecommerce product pages.

Cornerstone Content

Cornerstone content is a comprehensive guide or page targeting a specific content cluster or category.

When fleshing out your content strategy, you want to ensure that your website is perceived by Google to be an authority in a given topic or industry.

Cornerstone content helps with this because you're writing a long-form, authoritative piece regarding a specific topic, that interlinks with other related posts in that topic cluster. This helps to pass SEO authority among your site pages, ensuring that they all rank more effectively for their target keywords.

Anchor Text

The clickable text in a hyperlink is considered anchor text. Anchor text should be specific to the page you're referring to, rather than generic text, according to SEO best practices. 

For example, an anchor text that we could use for this page would be “search engine optimization guide”, rather than something generic like “click here”, because it properly conveys to Google what this page is all about. Whereas with “click here”, generic anchor text provides no context to Google. 

Again, anchor text helps Google determine what a page is all about and what phrase that page should rank for. 

Example of anchor text and interlinking from Moz

User Experience

User experience is key to ranking well on Google. Whether you’re trying to ensure that pages employ best practices and are mobile friendly like on WordPress websites, or uses language that’s natural and not confusing to users, it’s an underrated aspect of SEO that often goes overlooked, but is vital, because Google’s #1 priority is ensuring that users are able to find what they are looking for as easily as possible. 

By aligning your web pages with an optimal user experience, you can guarantee that your content will rank well on search engines. 

Unique Content

You want to make sure that all of your content is unique, and not duplicated on other websites, or within your own website. 

Google hates duplicate content. The more duplicate content you have, the less likely your website will rank in the search results, because Google is focused on delivering unique and original content to users to help satisfy their searches. 

When a website has duplicate content, keyword cannibalization can occur. Google will only show one result per domain in the SERPs. When two or more pages compete for the same keyword, Google can struggle to determine which of those pages should rank for that search position, which can hinder your overall keyword ranking opportunity compared to if you only had one page targeting that keyword.

Worse yet, Google can decide to not show any of your pages for that term, making it vital that your content is unique, and not duplicated or targeting the same primary keyword.

Freshness Factor For Content Updates

Freshness is another big factor for Google. Outdated content may return harmful or irrelevant information that doesn’t satisfy user interest. Searchers are looking for the most current, up-to-date information for topics, so you want to make sure you’re frequently updating content and creating fresh articles or blog posts. 

This doesn’t mean you have to constantly churn out timely news articles. You should be adopting an evergreen content approach for SEO, because that’s where you’ll see the most long-term gains. 

News articles may generate high spikes in traffic, but once that topic is no longer relevant, that article will stop driving organic traffic. 

With evergreen content, it’s typically relevant year-round or long term, and you can continually add, improve, or update information on those types of pages to adhere to that freshness factor. 

Video Content

On top of all of the other on-page best practices, optimizing your videos for SEO is also important and comes with its own set of best practices, ranging from doing keyword research for video titles and descriptions; creating captions; uploading transcripts of your videos; setting meta tags; ensuring your keywords are placed in the filename; etc...

Off-Page SEO Optimization

Off-page SEO is mostly concerned with obtaining high-quality backlinks to demonstrate to search engines that the website is authoritative and valuable. Techniques for link building include:

  • Guest posting on other websites
  • Email outreach to potential prospects (websites that are likely to link back to yours)
  • Broken link reclamation

It's important to remember that a good SEO approach includes both on-page and off-page SEO tactics.

Below we’ll walk through a few different considerations for off-page SEO: 

Link Building

Link building for SEO is one of the most important ranking factors on Google. 

You need an efficient link building process to build links from the best and relevant websites. One of the most important things to do is to build a reputable link profile and increase your chances of gaining links and increasing your brand's reputation.

Links serve as “thumbs up” to Google that tell it that your website is authoritative and should be presented in the SERPs as an expert source on a topic. 

Your backlinks should come from other relevant, highly authoritative websites. They should also appear higher up on a web page - the more prominently the link is placed on a web page, the more weight Google gives it when passing SEO authority. 

It should also have relevant anchor text that describes what your web page is all about. 

Google rewards a wide diversity of backlinks that come from different referring domains, rather than quantity of backlinks. 

For example, if you have 10 backlinks from the same domain, each additional backlink after the first one loses value. While backlinks #2 and #3 still have value, backlinks #9 or #10 may metaphorically have 10% of the value compared to that first backlink that comes from that referring domain. So the more referring domains you have linking to your website, the better, compared to cultivating hundreds of backlinks from the same domain. 

One word of caution: generating hundreds of backlinks from a domain that’s not within your business network can appear to Google as spammy, or unnatural, and there’s the potential to get penalized. 

Never buy backlinks for your website (this goes against Google’s webmaster guidelines) - and unless it’s part of a business partnership, you shouldn’t strive to have hundreds or thousands of backlinks from a small number of websites.

Check out our latest articles for tips on creating pitches for link building and how to craft pitches for journalists.  

Google My Business

Google My Business is vital for local SEO. When people search for your company name, it will serve as the first impression users will get about your business, ranging from your contact information, reviews, the address, and more, helping you to drive more local customers and leads to your business. 

Your Google My Business should be optimized with current information, relevant photos of your business, an accurate pin location on Google Maps, and full of positive reviews that you’re frequently responding to. 

Bing Places

Bing Places is Microsoft’s counterpart to Google My Business, offering the exact same information on Bing’s search engine results pages. If you haven’t set up Bing Places yet, I strongly suggest you do so, as it’s an untapped resource that most webmasters haven’t optimized. 

You can even set up Bing Places by syncing your Google My Business information, which is quick and painless. 

Reviews

Reviews for your business are also a strong factor for ranking well on Google. The more positive reviews your website has, the more Google considers you to be a trusted authority, which will allow you to rank higher for competitive terms. It also serves the benefit of enticing users to do business with your organization. 

Whether you’re driving reviews to your Google My Business account, or you’re opted into a program such as Trustpilot and using review schema, you should always strive to cultivate reviews from your customers. 

Knowledge Panels

Like Google My Business, knowledge panels are for organizations on a national level, rather than a local level. 

These also show Google that you’re a large, trusted authority. Knowledge panels are typically generated through information found in Wikipedia articles about your business. 

Technical SEO Optimization

Now that we’ve walked through Off-Page SEO, we’ll discuss the technical factors you should know when trying to get your website to rank well on Google. 

Noindex Tags

The “noindex” directive is used by webmasters to discourage content from being indexed that is not intended for search engines. 

Noindex tags are typically used on low quality pages that you don’t want indexed on Google, like internal search results pages, or thank you pages. 

Canonicals

Canonical tags are an effective way to say Google and other search engines which URLs you want indexed. If you have several copies of the same page with similar information, they will help you avoid duplicate content problems by telling Google to pay attention to page A, while ignoring and passing value to page B, C, or D. 

Canonicals are often used when a site implements URL parameters, like ecommerce websites or online stores with dozens of filters for similar products (like color or size), and served as meta tags within the <head> section of your web page’s code. 

NoFollow Tags

A nofollow tag is a plain HTML tag. When appended to a hyperlink, it helps webmasters to decide whether or not search engines can follow the link. 

This helps to preserve crawl budget and guide Google to finding and discovering the most important pages on your website. 

Crawl Budget

You may be wondering what crawl budget is. In theory, Google only has limited resources to crawl and discover new pages on the internet. With billions of new results appearing every day, Google needs to adequately preserve its resources so it can discover this new content. 

Rather than Google crawling your entire website, its crawl bots typically crawl a portion of your website before stopping its crawl and moving onto another website. 

If your crawl budget isn’t optimized, this can lead to new pages, or important pages, not being actively crawled or discovered. 

This will ultimately hurt your search engine rankings and organic visibility because of swathes of your website not being actively crawled. 

Most webmasters preserve crawl budget through nofollow noindex tags, 301 redirects, canonicals, and even optimizing page resources / load speeds so that Google can discover more pages on the site without eating up crawl budget. 

Page Rendering

Page rendering is especially important for SEO. If Google can’t render your page’s code, it can’t understand what your page is about, and won’t rank your site in the search results. 

For example, Google can’t render images, or iframes, so you want to make sure your code is easily readable as HTML.

In the past, Google was also unable to adequately read Javascript, making frameworks that utilize this coding language unviable and against SEO best practices. 

Google’s search algorithm has since gotten more advanced and is able to properly render Javascript frameworks like Angular or React. 

However, this isn’t always true for other search engines, like Bing or Yandex. So you need to exercise caution when using Javascript heavy frameworks - they also eat up a lot of resources and can bog down your site’s load times if it isn’t set up properly. 

A good method to help with Google parsing through the data on your page is to incorporate server side or dynamic rendering for your site elements.

Schema Markup

Schema markup (schema.org) is a standardized data language that enables search engines to better interpret the content on the website and generate more accurate results. These markups help search engines to understand the context and relationships of entities on your website.

Google considers schema markup to be a ranking factor in its algorithm. There are many different types of schema, but you want to make sure that you’re using all the right types of schema for your web pages. Here are a few examples of common schema types that you can include on your webpages. 

You should also check out our latest guide on how to add structured data to your website and our list of best schema markup plugins for WordPress.

Mobile Friendliness (Responsive Design)

Google has recently moved its index to “mobile only”. This means that you want to ensure your website is sized properly for users viewing it on mobile devices. 

Responsive design is when your website resizes properly between desktop and mobile viewing experiences. 

In the past, webmasters would create different versions of a website: one for desktop and one for mobile. This is now bad practice and Google will penalize your website if it employs this type of design. 

Page Speed Optimization (Web Core Vitals)

Google recently announced page speed as a significant ranking factor in its algorithm. Specifically, it focuses on the following factors: 

  • Time to first byte: how quickly the first resource on your page loads
  • Cumulative layout shift: how much the elements on your web page shift into focus as the page loads
  • First Contentful Paint: how quickly your page loads above the fold
  • Time to interactive: how quickly users can interact with your web page. 
  • Largest contentful paint: how quickly the largest elements on your page load
  • Speed Index: the time it takes for your entire web page to load

In general, you want to make sure your web pages load within less than 3 seconds on mobile, and pass the above core web vital metrics. Google analyzes these metrics when determining page load speed scores on web pages.

Read our latest article to learn how to optimize your website for site speed.  

Google Data Highlighter

Google data highlighter is a tool found within Google Search Console that helps teach Google what types of schema should automatically be added to your website pages. It’s very similar to schema markup, but doesn’t require the manual insertion of schema on your web pages. 

If you’re wondering what the difference is between Google Data Highlighter vs. schema markup, read our latest article that will walk you through the differences between the two. 

Site Structure

Similar to internal linking, a good site structure is vital for ranking well on Google. 

Having an optimized structure helps to improve the crawlability of your website, increase keyword rankings, and improve UX / user engagement by helping them easily navigate through your website. 

You want to make sure that your top categories and priority pages are linked within your sites navigation and footer. 

It’s also important to ensure that your content is well fleshed out in clearly marked silos to help Google understand and find the various sections of your website. 

Breadcrumbs

Like site navigation, breadcrumbs help Google and users understand the relationship of your site hierarchy and where the current page they’re visiting falls within that hierarchy. 

Breadcrumbs are especially important on e-commerce websites - you’ll notice that many large online retailers like Amazon use breadcrumbs. 

These should be easily displayed and presented at the top of web pages to help users understand where they’re at on your website, and if they need to, quickly navigate back to their original starting point. 

XML Sitemaps

XML sitemaps are a file that search engines use to discover and index all of the web pages on your website. It’s important to have a XML sitemap established to help your pages rank faster in the search results. 

When Google first visits a website, the first resources it checks are the XML sitemap and robots.txt file. 

XML sitemaps help Google quickly find new pages that have been uploaded since it last crawled your website, as well as monitor any changes from existing pages, which will entice it to re-crawl and index those pages. 

This helps Google prioritize crawl budget and ensures that most of your website is being crawled and indexed with every visit from Google’s spiders. 

Robots.txt File

A robots.txt file gives Google directives that it can choose to follow when crawling your website. Most robots.txt files include directives like nofollow or noindex, which can help keep unimportant pages out of Google and preserve crawl budget to help it find the most important pages on the site. 

Orphan Pages

Orphan pages are the result of web pages that have no internal links pointing to them. This makes it nearly impossible for Google to discover and crawl them. You want to make sure that all pages are internally linked on your website to prevent this from happening. 

There are many tools out there that can help you identify orphan pages - my personal favorite is Screaming Frog, one of the industry standards for conducting technical SEO audits. 

Header Response

Header responses are how Google perceives your web pages. There are many different codes that help webmasters and Google identify the status of a webpage, which we will explain below: 

200 Status Codes

200 status codes mean that Google was able to successfully crawl and read your web pages. A majority of your web pages should resolve in 200 status codes. 

301 Redirects

301 redirects are implemented when an old web page is “redirecting” users to a new web page. These codes tell Google that the location of the old page has moved, and is now in a new location (as a new URL). It’s important to implement 301 redirects when deleting or moving web pages to help Google find their new equivalent, as well as pass any old SEO authority to help the new pages rank effectively. 

This also helps with user experience, as you’re actively directing users to visit and navigate your new pages, rather than be faced with a 404 error and “bouncing” from your website. 

It's also best practice to resolve 301 redirect chains and redirect loops to preserve as much SEO value as possible from old pages that are being redirected.

404 Errors

404 errors are pages that Google wasn’t able to find or crawl. You want to make sure that your site pages don’t resolve in 404 errors and to implement 301 redirects, when appropriate. 

Having said that, not all 404 errors are bad (such as if a user is using an internal search engine and no relevant results are available). 

But if there are many 404 errors on your website, this harms the overall user experience. It also signals to Google that your website has technical issues, or doesn’t contain content that’s useful to users on the web, which will hurt your overall trust in Google’s search engine. This will result in a decline in your keyword rankings because Google doesn’t see you as trustworthy due to a large swatch of broken or deleted pages. 

500 Errors

500 error codes are when a server error occurs, preventing a search engine from crawling your website. These types of errors are rare, but should be noted in case your server is having issues resulting in your web page being “down” for users trying to access it. 

If many server errors occur, this will incentivize Google to stop crawling your website and wasting crawl budget. It also hurts user experience, preventing your business from generating transactions as searchers bounce from your website (or actively avoid it due to the poor user experience). 

Image Optimization

Often overlooked, SEO image optimization is important for on-page optimization, as well as technical SEO. 

Like iframes, Google isn’t able to render an image, or read any text added to the image design.

Instead, relies on HTML attributes like alt tags to determine what an image is and how relevant that image is to your web page content. They look at your image title and captions as well for hints regarding how the image is related to your content. 

Adding these types of attributes also helps with user accessibility, in case a user is using a page reader if they’re blind, or if an image isn’t properly loading. 

Images are also the biggest factor for slow load times on site pages. You want to make sure your images are compressed and sized properly to reduce loading times and improve your web core vitals metrics, as well as use a CDN to store and serve images to users based on their location to the CDN servers. 

CDNs are useful in also reducing the amount of space being used by your database storage, saving and serving images via a cloud network. This creates less overhead and more efficiency in load times, rather than trying to serve images through your website’s storage. 

HTTPS Encryption

Google has stated that it considers HTTPS encryption of website assets to be a minor ranking factor in its algorithm. You want to make sure that your site is encrypted, especially when handling sensitive user information like credit cards or personal finances.

E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness)

EAT (expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness) are the factors that Google evaluates within their Quality Raters Program. 

The purpose of Quality Raters is to make the Search results better by identifying low quality pages that don’t satisfy user intent, or result in poor experiences. Google hires raters to evaluate thousands of websites a year and provide feedback that they can use to improve their search algorithm. 

Quality Raters also look to identify high quality content that can serve as a “north star” for how other web pages should serve content or meet a user’s needs. 

Again, a big component of Google’s quality raters guidelines is Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. 

These factors have become increasingly important in Google’s algorithm when determining how pages should rank in the search results. They’re also cited in the Raters Guidelines 200+ times. 

To satisfy EAT, You want to prove that you’re an expert or authority in your field (this is very prevalent in Your Money, Your Life, or health niches). It’s also important to show to Google that your information is trustworthy and won’t harm or mislead users. 

Fulfilling EAT is done by establishing your website or company as an authority in its niche, or your writers as content experts in the industry. Reviews play a big factor in trustworthiness. And link building helps reinforce all three areas of EAT in the eyes of Google. 

SEO Metrics And How To Measure Them

Now that we’ve walked through the main areas of SEO, let’s dive into common organic metrics and tools that you should be looking for when evaluating your website’s SEO health. 

Google Search Console

Google Search Console is the #1 tool you should be using for search engine optimization. It’s a free tool offered by Google that gives insights into how well your site is performing organically on Google. 

It allows you to find information on how Google is viewing your site pages, and what pages are being crawled / indexed. 

Search Console offers other features, like submission of sitemaps, removing URLs from the SERPs, identifying security issues or manual penalties, and even what websites are linking to your own. 

The most important aspect of GSC is the performance section, which will show you the amount of organic clicks your site pages get; what queries they rank for; the clickthrough rate of those pages, and how often they’re appearing for search query (number of impressions). 

If you haven’t already, you can read our latest article on how to set up Google Search Console for your website. 

Bing Webmaster Tools

Bing Webmaster Tools is the equivalent of Google Search Console, specifically designed to track organic performance within Bing’s search engine. If you haven’t already, I would recommend setting up Bing Webmaster Tools for your website as well. 

Google Analytics

Another free tool offered by Google, Google Analytics is a treasure trove of quality metrics for not only organic performance, but overall site performance. 

You can see user activity as it happens in real time. It will show you a lot of information about your visitors, such as demographics, location, or devices used when entering your site. 

It shows what users are actually doing on your website, or how much time they spend on specific pages, or how often they bounce without engaging or visiting other web pages. 

You can set up conversion metrics to see what kinds of transactions are occurring on your site, or even see what queries users are searching for through your site’s internal search engine. 

Be sure to read our complete guide on how to set up Google Analytics for your website if you haven’t done so yet. 

SEMRush

SEMRush is the industry standard tool for keyword research that you should be using. Beyond keyword research, you can track how your site is ranking over time for all keywords. It also allows you to run technical SEO audits, perform topic research, or even on-page optimization for existing content. 

Ahrefs

Ahrefs is similar to SEMRush, but I consider it to be the industry standard when analyzing the backlinks your site has gained from other referring domains. 

It’s my preferred tool when identifying websites to target for linkbuilding, tracking progress, and identifying prospects. It also doubles as a keyword research tool, like SEMRush. 

Screaming Frog

Screaming Frog is the industry standard for technical SEO audits. This tool allows you to conduct site wide audits to find any SEO issues in the form of missing on-page elements, broken pages or links, rendering issues, and a whole slew of other insights. 

You can also integrate with other SEO tools like Ahrefs or Google Search Console to gain more insights into your page performance as it crawls your website for technical issues. 

Structured Data Testing Tool

If you’re creating schema markup on your web pages, you’ll need to check that there are no errors or warnings associated with that markup. Google offers a structured data testing tool that allows you to see any warnings or errors for schema code snippets, or any structured data already included on your website pages. 

There are also many other schema markup testing tools that you can use, if you aren’t comfortable relying on just Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool. 

Rich Result Testing Tool

Google’s Rich Result Testing Tool serves as a replacement for its legacy Structured Data Testing Tool. 

It’s useful for identifying markup warnings or errors. It also offers the ability to see what your schema will look like in the search results before adding it to your web pages (it will show your schema if its eligible to display as a rich snippet).

Google Page Speed Insights

Like I mentioned before, page speed performance is important for your keyword rankings. Google’s Page Speed Insights testing tool will show all the web core vital metrics associated with your web pages, and offer suggestions on ways to improve those scores and cut down on load times. 

GetSTAT Keyword Rank Tracking

For keyword ranking tracking, GetSTAT is one of the best ways available to track your rankings, showing daily keyword fluctuations, as well as keeping tabs of competitor market share to see how your competitor websites stack up compared to your current rankings. 

This tool was created by Moz for keyword tracking, and while expensive, is well worth the investment. 

Google Algorithm Updates

Google makes updates to its algorithm frequently, which can cause volatility in the SERPs. Below we’ll walk through the two main types of updates Google makes. 

Daily Search Results Fluctuation

Google makes daily updates to its algorithm. These types of updates are small in nature, and most times keywords wont experience significant fluctuations. 

There are many tools available that track volatility in the search results, ranging from SEMRush’s Sensor to Rank Ranger’s Risk Index. 

Because of the frequency of updates to Google’s algorithm, you should be using these tools to closely monitor any fluctuations in your keyword rankings and adjust accordingly to minimize organic traffic losses if your site is impacted by these kinds of updates. 

Core Updates

Core updates, on the other hand, typically roll out once every few months. Google will pre announce core updates because they are much larger in scope and will cause severe fluctuations in rankings for multiple categories and niches. 

These types of updates are the ones you want to stay on top of and monitor any news or chatter in the SEO space regarding their impact so you can safeguard against them as best as possible. 

While Google often gives minimal direction to webmasters, often advising them to “write great content”, there are other factors at play that you should consider when trying to determine what Google’s algorithm is prioritizing. 

Some things to consider include: 

  • Freshness factor - how often a domain’s web pages are updated with new information
  • User experience - if it’s poor, or if a page offers many features and tools that answer the needs of users. Your web pages should also adequately match the intent of the queries its ranking for and satisfying those user pain points
  • Schema markup - what types of schema are included on the web page
  • Rendering - if Google can properly render web pages for its index
  • Backlinks from referring domains - if a page or website is authoritative through a multitude of high quality backlinks, especially when stacked up against other competitors
  • Keyword losses - what keywords your website lost during a core update and if they properly matched the overall intent of your web page
  • Internal linking - how optimized your anchor text is and if you’re actively linking to other pages within your site hierarchy
  • Page updates - sometimes updating a page improperly can harm rankings and it’s necessary to revert those changes to win back those keyword rankings
  • Competitor analysis - if your competitors saw gains, what are they doing that you should also be doing on your website? 
  • E-A-T - do you properly follow or espouse E-A-T on your website? Or is it lacking? 
  • Winners and losers - looking at all the winners and losers from every industry to try and identify common themes and reverse engineer a SEO strategy based on that research
  • Page Declines - what pages on your website were impacted? What common themes do they share that you can improve upon? 
  • Page Speed - how quickly does your website load? Does it offer a poor user experience? 

Conclusion

There are many different factors in play when it comes to search engine optimization, whether you’re looking at the technical code of your website, the content you’re trying to optimize, or performing link building campaigns to generate more authority to improve your site’s digital presence. 

This guide walked you through the SEO basics and what you should be considering when optimizing your website to drive more organic traffic and business conversions. 

We hope that you found this overview to be helpful and encourage you to check out our other SEO resources that we have available on more specific SEO topics / best practices. 

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