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What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a broad topic. So it's easy to get lost in the ever-evolving layers of nuance. Thankfully, most people will never need more than a minimalist’s working understanding of the topic. So let's get right to the stuff that's worth your time.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of making web content that is both 1) useful for humans in a target audience and 2) easy for search engines to decipher and index.
When content (articles, videos, etc.) satisfies both of those criteria, it's more likely that content will have a fighting chance of ranking higher in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).
But if content satisfies one or neither of those criteria, don’t expect to jump onto the all-coveted “page one” of Google anytime soon. Or ever.
Above all else, the primary objective SEO is to make content that is useful for humans that is easily indexed. In the spirit of achieving both those goals, let’s talk about page structure.
Why your content should be super useful (serve the humans)
When users (you and I) read an article, watch a video, or listen to a podcast, we want something in return our time invested. It's a transaction where we trade our time for answers or entertainment.
Whether you’re looking for cat videos, tips for cutting onions without crying, or directions to the nearest coffee house – when you find the useful content you’re looking for you say, “Aha! That’s it!”.
If your content doesn't generate a “eureka moment” for your target audience, it will be ignored. So, I implore you: Serve your target audience. Answer their burning questions. Teach them what they want to learn. And produce content that takes care of them.
If you fail to provide useful content for your target audience, no amount of technical SEO tricks will help you climb the search results page. But if you produce killer content while following some basic SEO best practices, your odds for climbing can increase.
More technical SEO tactics can be employed once you've got your content in order. Google is smart. And they see right through technical gimmicks that used to help sites rank.
So before we talk technical SEO strategies that DO work. Let's rule out the old strategies that should be avoided at all costs.
Old SEO tricks are obsolete and can hurt your rankings
In the early days of the Internet, you could sprinkle your content with keywords for which you wanted to rank and you’d get a nice boost in the search rankings.
How did that work in the old days? Well, when search engines scanned the web for content containing those words, pages with a high concentration of those words were assumed to be relevant to the search. So those webpages would make their way to the top of the search results pages for those keywords.
That practice became known as keyword stuffing. It was a temporary means of manipulating search engines into thinking content was relevant.
Since keyword stuffing doesn’t actually deliver valuable content to the end user, that tactic now can negatively impact a site’s search rankings.
This keyword stuffing example is straight from Google’s Quality Guidelines:
Examples of keyword stuffing include… Repeating the same words or phrases so often that it sounds unnatural, for example:
“We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at [email protected]”
That’s a pretty egregious example of keyword stuffing. But you get the point. If keywords appear with an unnatural frequency, it can almost become painful to read. And that kind of content doesn’t serve the user.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of keywords on a page. Those keywords just need to be part of a piece of content that somebody might find useful.
Fun Fact: Keyword stuffing was just one of the old fashioned ways of artificially boosting search rankings. One interesting spin on that trick involved dropping a bunch of keywords throughout a page and and making the color of the keywords match the same color as the background (i.e. white text on a white background).
Users wouldn’t detect the keyword stuffing. But search engines would notice the abundance of keywords and still award high rankings. As you can guess, that doesn’t work anymore either, and Google frowns upon it and similar shady tactics.
The best thing you can do for your SEO is write content that serves users and satisfies bots. In other words, serve the humans. Satisfy the bots.
On-Page vs. Off-Page SEO
On-page: “I’m the coolest guy in the room. You should definitely hire me. I'm amazing.” – Guy pointing thumbs to himself
Off-page: “Hey. You see that guy over there? He’s the coolest guy in the room. You should check him out.” – Previous customer giving double finger-guns to the guy he hired
In a perfect world you have both on-page and off-page SEO working in your favor.
You can tell the world how awesome you are all day long. And that’s great for your on-page strategy. But everyone already expects you to think you’re great. After all, if you don’t believe in your product or services, why should anyone else give you the time of day?
You think you're great. We get it.
As I’m sure you know, there’s not always congruency between how a business talks about themselves and how others talk about them.
Imagine a local lawn care company that is self-described as dependable, friendly, and professional. But their Google or Facebook reviews are littered with different versions of:
- “They never returned my calls!
- “Bunch of jerks.”
- “They don’t show up half the time they’re supposed to!”
- “Very disappointed.
- 10/10 would NOT recommend.”
That would be bad news for a website’s overall SEO. The off-page and on-page SEO is incongruent. The on-page stuff says they're great. But the off-page stuff says otherwise. For that reason, Google might not be so inclined to rank that site very highly in the search results.
Now imagine if those off-page reviews were actually good. Then you'd have the company’s website claiming they’re great AND there’s off-page proof to back it up. THAT looks like a legit business and website. And that site has much better chances of climbing the rankings.
You have direct control over your on-page SEO. But off-page SEO juice comes from other people going to bat for you. People can promote your site by linking to your content, recommending your services, etc. When there's buzz about your brand floating around the Internet, it can add fuel to your SEO fire.
When it comes to off-page SEO, my best advice is this: Do great work so that your clients and customers are happy to brag about you to their friends and recommend your product or services.
That's marketing power that money can't buy. That's the extent to which you should focus on off-page stuff if you're just getting your site off the ground. (More technical stuff can come later)
Your off-page SEO also gets a boost when you have publicly accessible reviews that aren't housed in your website. Reviews on the following platforms have the advantage of looking a bit more legit since you don't have direct control over them:
- Google Reviews
- Facebook Business Reviews
- Yelp, etc.
So far, I’ve covered a few ways you can serve you target audience (humans) through useful content. Now let's learn how to make bots happy.
How to structure pages for SEO (please the bots)
In the same way your high school papers contained elements like a title, introduction, body, and conclusion, the bones of a webpage are also comprised of a few important parts.
Webpages are made up of elements including, but not limited to, the head, body, and footer. Each of those elements house information that helps search engines better understand the contents of a page.
At minimum, the head contains a page title and a short description of the page called a meta description. The body contains the main content of the page. And the footer usually contains site navigation, contact info, and other important info that wouldn’t fit in the main navigation. Basically, the footer is the junk drawer.
Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s a lot easier for Google to index your website if you tell it what you want it to know about your pages. And if you haven’t told Google what you want it to know about your pages, you might be missing out on some free, low-hanging SEO fruit that can be plugged into the head of your site.
You can help Google help you by filling out that information for all the pages you’d like to have indexed. WordPress plugins like SmartCrawl , Yoast SEO, and Slim SEO make it super easy to fill in all the recommended SEO info for each page.
How to use SmartCrawl to setup basic on-page SEO in WordPress
Let's look at how we can tell Google how we want our site to be indexed and displayed in the search results page. In this demo video, I'm using the Smart Crawl plugin to edit the page title, meta data, and keywords for the homepage of this website. It's worth mentioning that what I'm doing here must be done for all your main pages on your site. More on that in a bit.
Make sure you enter that SEO info for each page and post you're trying to rank on your site. If you only add that information to your homepage, you’ll only have extra SEO juice on that page. It doesn’t extend to your entire site.
If a web page is missing (or has non-descriptive) SEO “big rocks” such as a page title, meta description, or keywords, it can negatively impact search rankings for that page. If your site isn’t currently optimized for that low-hanging fruit, it’s a great place to start tightening up your on-page SEO.
Now that you know setting a page title, meta description, and keyword focus is a must for basic SEO, let’s dive a little deeper into another way you can help Google further understand a webpage’s content.
“Meta data” refers to information about data. And a “tag” is like a little sticky note attached to a piece of information on a webpage. Tags provide context and specific information about data. Combine the two and you have a meta tag.
If you see a dog you know it's a dog. Because you've known what a dog looks like since… forever. But if that's all the data you have on that dog, you can't do much with it. Is the dog someone's lost pet or a stray?
But if you want to know more information about a dog, you might check his collar to look for a tag. Why? Because a dog's tag might provide some useful information to you.
Let's say you check the tag and find the dog's name and owner's phone number. Thanks to the tag you know the dog, who was a stranger to you previously, is actually “Big Mike”. And he belongs to the person who's phone number is stitched into his collar.
Now you have some useful information to work with.
In the same way, meta tags tell Google information about the content on a web page. It's data about data.
If that sentence just made the voice in your head say, “What the what???”, the video below will make more sense of the concept. Though I'm almost certain the dog metaphor was helpful enough.
“Heading tags“, commonly referred to simply as “headings“, are also little sticky notes attached to bits of information on a webpage. You don’t see heading tags or meta tags them displayed on the front end of the site or anything. They’re tucked into the source code of the page so that your browser knows what to do with the “tagged” data.
When you create a bulleted list in a Word document, you establish a hierarchy of importance by keeping main points in line with one another while sub-points are indented and sub-points to those sub-points are indented even further.
The farther indented the bullet point, the farther removed that information is from its parent bullet. If you were to read through a bulleted list ignoring any sub-points (tertiary, quaternary, etc.) you should still come away understanding the most important information.
The sub-points add a little extra detail, but the list makes sense without them. This concept closely mirrors the way heading tags work within a web page. The big important headings describe the meat of the content. The less important headings give added information, but the content would still make sense without them.
There are six heading levels (H1-H6) that can be assigned to text on a webpage. These tags are used to establish a hierarchy of importance within the content of a page. The lower the heading tag number (1-6) the more important it is, and the higher the number, generally speaking, the less important it is.
Since we know that heading tags operate similar to bullet points, let’s look at some best practices for when and why you might use each of the different heading tags to enhance your page structure.
H1 is the “big boss” when it comes to headings. An H1 is used solely for the page title and therefore should only be used once per page. A well written page title lets users and search engines know what the main point of the page is.
If the H1 on a page is “Spaghetti Recipes” both human users and Google’s bots will expect to find information relevant to spaghetti recipes on that page. Pair that with well written content that contains helpful information and spaghetti recipes and you’re on your way to ranking for those search terms.
But if the H1 is “Spaghetti Recipes” and the content on the page actually contains pizza recipes and makes zero reference to spaghetti, you’d have a mismatch. From there, your page might get indexed incorrectly. And if that happens, your search rankings can take a hit.
Fun Fact: H1 is automatically added to the title of a page or post in WordPress, so there’s no need to manually add that tag to your page title.
If H1 is the title of a book, H2 is the chapter titles.
Think of H2 as the “the sub-point guy”. Any of the main points or sections within a page should be identified by an H2 tag. H2's are great for breaking up walls of text, making your content easier for users to scan and easier for Google to index.
If headings aren’t descriptive, they aren’t very helpful to users or bots. So avoid using vague heading titles like “Here’s the Next Part”, “My Third Thought”, or “And One More Thing”.
People don’t want to sift through a bunch of text to figure out where you're trying to take them. So use headings to tell your users where you’re going to be taking them. Then use the paragraphs that follow to take them there. And when you’re ready to make a new point, insert another H2 heading.
Headings act as “sign posts”
They guide a reader through your website content.
Headings should be descriptive enough that if someone only scanned the page, they’d still be able to glean the main message. Plus, if your headings are solid, users will be more likely to stick around and engage with your content.
In this way, you’re effectively “sign-posting” your users to the content they might be looking for. If they’re scanning a page for specific information, a descriptive heading will stop them in their tracks. They’ll know they’re in looking in the right place, and they’ll stick around to read.
If users scan your page and can’t quickly find any sign posts, they might assume they’ve taken a wrong turn by ending up on your site. They might leave without reading anything. And who knows if they’ll be back?
The post you're reading right now is setup in the very way I'm describing here. All the big headings down the page are H2's. And the table of contents at the top of this post links to each of those headings for easy navigation. These are called anchor links.
Anchor Links Are Phenomenal for SEO
Anchor links can do many cool and useful things. My favorite is when the link is clicked, it scrolls the page to an exact location on the page.
This function is super handy for users who want to skip right to the information they need. And anything that is good for user experience is good for SEO. Did you notice the table of contents at the top of this page?
Anchor links can take scroll to a specific point in a piece of content within the same page where the link is clicked as in the table of contents example. But anchor links can also jump to a specific location on a webpage even if it's clicked on from an external source.
Say you read something cool in a lengthy article and want to share it on Facebook so when someone clicks the link it jumps right to the cool part.
Example 1: click this link and it will open the blog post you're reading now in a new tab then scroll to the heading in this post titled, “When to Use H1 Tags”. And if this link were shared on Facebook or any other site for that matter, it would do the same thing.
Example 2: but when you click this link it works the same way the table of contents works on this page. It will take you back up the page you're on right now to that same heading, “When to Use H1 Tags”.
Just remember where you left off because you'll have to scroll back down to resume reading, LOL. Sorry. I've highlighted this section to make it easy to find again.
Anchor links are phenomenal for SEO. So if you have long-form blogs, in my opinion, it's worth setting up a table of contents with anchor links. Setting it up manually can take awhile, especially if you have a lot of headings. And it might not look very stylish. Yes, tables of content can be stylish.
But if you're a WordPress user, the LuckyWP Table of Contents plugin can handle the job in no time. It's what I'm using on my site. And it's got some handy settings that will let you do more than simply put a list of anchor links at the top of your blog posts.
I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not I did it that way before realizing this plugin existed.
H3-H6 tags typically represent progressively less and less important information relative to the main point of a page. Honestly, these headings don’t get a lot of love. They’re there if you need them. But you probably won’t need them. So you can safely leave them alone. Did I mention you probably won’t need them?
Imagine a table of contents in a book. If all the sub points of each chapter were laid out beneath the chapter title, some of those sub headings might start to seem unrelated to the chapter title.
If a web page is structured this way, it could hurt your search performance if it's not done well. It has potential to confuse users. And your content could be more difficult to index.
Excessive layers of semi-relevant information deter users from reading. Much like tertiary and quaternary bullet points, using H3-H6 tags can start to feel like a scene from, “Inception”.
If your information is diverging so much from your main points (H2’s and maybe H3’s) that you find yourself needing to use H4-H6 tags, I recommend you “Back Up Terry” and consider if that information is critical to the content in the first place. If it won’t hurt the content, I say leave it out.
And if you absolutely must get that information out of your system, consider putting that content into a separate, related piece of content.
Heading tags often have text styling associated with them. At first, it may seem like an easy way to style your text or change font sizes on the fly. But I strongly suggest avoiding using headings solely for styling.
See this screen capture I made demonstrating how WordPress allows you to quickly add a heading tag and adjust text styling. It's easy to do, but it's not always the best move for making your text look special.
Ideally, we'll use headings to tell search engines what your page is about. And we'll use separate styling controls, when necessary, to make that text look the way we want.
Don’t miss low-hanging SEO fruit in the name of taking a shortcut to make text look special.
If you do anything for your SEO, do this
Produce helpful content and structure it like a boss so you can serve the humans and please the bots.
Follow these best practices for basic SEO and your users will be able to easily scan (and hopefully, ultimately read) your highly valuable, useful content.
Search engine bots will have an easier time indexing your site. And in turn, your site will be more likely to climb the search ranks. At the end of the day, isn't that the point of all this SEO stuff anyhow?
Take the tips listed here and snag some low-hanging fruit. Then run that fruit through the blender to give your site some free SEO juice.