Everything you need to know in order for your business to rank higher in search engines.
The Ultimate SEO Guide
What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search engine optimization – typically shortened to “SEO” – is the process of optimizing your website to increase its visibility when people search for products, services, or content related to your business on Google, Bing, and other search engines. The higher your position on search engine results pages (SERPs), the more likely your web pages are to get attention from searchers and attract customers, readers, viewers, listeners, and others to your site.
Search Engine Optimization: The Basics
Search engines like Google and Bing send bots to crawl pages on the web, collecting information about those pages and documenting it in an index. An index is a massive virtual library where the search engine acts like a librarian, suggesting the best web pages to help you find the information, products, services, or anything else you could be looking for online.
Algorithms analyze pages in the index (based on hundreds of factors) to determine the order pages should appear in the search results for every possible search across the globe. Extending the library analogy, the librarian (algorithm) has read every book in the library (web page) and can tell you exactly which page will provide you with what you need.
SEO success factors take into account the entire user experience when recommending web pages. It’s not just about the information on the page but also the overall quality of your time on the page, including how quickly it loads, the imagery used on it, how information is structured, and much more. So, it’s not good enough to have the best content on your site – it has to be delivered effectively, too.
An added bit of complexity when it comes to SEO: Google’s algorithm and those of other search engines are changing all the time. They’re regularly updated to improve the user experience, deliver better information, and respond to evolving search needs. It’s critical to stay up-to-date on the latest search trends and algorithm changes. Otherwise, a top-performing website could lag behind for failing to meet the latest algorithm standards.
Search engines are also increasingly trying to give users the information they want right on the search page rather than pushing them to a website. Businesses and their SEO experts have to be very creative when it comes to attracting searchers to their sites or getting their brand seen on SERPs.
Unlike paid search advertising (like Google Ads), you can’t pay search engines to gain higher organic search rankings. SEO experts and everyone contributing to the overall website experience – including writers, designers, and developers – must put in the hard work to make digital experiences the best they can be.
Remember: Google provides a service. That service is to deliver its users the most valuable web content for their needs. If Google fails to do this, users will turn to a provider that gives them better results.
Why Is SEO Important?
Search engine optimization is a necessary part of digital — and overall — marketing because people conduct trillions of search queries every year. Many searches are related to learning about products and services or are seeking information that could result in a sale or other commercial transaction. Search is often the primary source of online traffic for brands and complements other marketing strategies and tactics.
Ranking higher in search than your competitors can significantly impact your business's bottom line. In many cases, if you fall off the top three results (especially for local searches), your business is virtually invisible.
SEO is the foundation of a holistic marketing program. When you understand what your website users want, you can implement that knowledge in your marketing efforts. SEO provides the intel you need to market your business effectively.
Is it Possible to Learn SEO?
SEO is complicated, but just about anyone can understand its principles. It’s essential for business owners and marketers to get a grip on how SEO works so its basic precepts guide their marketing strategy.
It’s wise for businesses to invest in an SEO expert, even a part-time one, to advise them and keep them up-to-date on algorithm changes and other developments – it can help you stay ahead of your competitors in the online search game.
What Factors Impact SEO the Most?
Search engine optimization is complex – that’s why so many organizations find it challenging to win the SEO game. This section explains the most critical factors (among hundreds) that contribute to SEO success. Understanding these factors will help your site, content, products, and services appear at the top of Google and other search engine results.
Websites Must Be Secure and Accessible
At the top of our SEO ranking factors is having the right kind of URL: one that Google’s bots can easily reach and crawl.
These bots must be able to visit the URL and crawl the page content to understand what it’s about. To help the bots out, you will need the following:
A website built on a reputable web platform
A robots.txt file that tells Google where it can and can’t look for your site information
A sitemap that includes all the website’s pages
If you have a WordPress site, you can set up a sitemap using one of the plugins available through their platform. If not, use an online sitemap generator.
Regarding Google’s perception of site security, having an HTTPS website is beneficial – it’s a relatively small ranking factor, but every bit counts.
Page speed has been one of the top SEO ranking factors for a long time. Google wants to deliver great web experiences to its users, and fast-loading web pages do just that. Your site must load quickly on all devices or it will be penalized.
Google’s mobile testing tool can help you understand how your site is performing. You should also regularly use Google Search Console to monitor your site’s load speed. This can help identify issues that could unexpectedly slow it down.
Mobile-friendliness is another critical SEO factor. More people access the web via smartphone than any device, including laptops.
Google’s mobile-first index is now a reality. This index prefers mobile-optimized sites rather than ones geared to desktop or laptop computers. If your site isn’t optimized for mobile, what are you waiting for? You risk getting out-ranked by all your mobile-optimized competitors.
Some factors that will demonstrate to Google that your site is mobile-friendly include:
Having a responsive site that resizes depending on the device
Using relatively large fonts that are readable on a small screen
Including mobile-friendly menus, making your site easy to navigate on a smartphone
Ensuring that content isn’t hidden by pop-ups or ads
One other thing to consider is Google AMP (accelerated mobile pages). These pages load nearly instantly on mobile devices, and Google may rank sites built with AMP higher than others. One issue: you may need to create and maintain a second version of your site following AMP’s guidelines, which could be labor-intensive over time.
Domain Age, URL, and Authority
Most sites with a top ten Google ranking (60 percent) are three years old or more. That stat comes from an Ahrefs study of two million pages and suggests that relatively few new sites rank high. If your site is established, you’re more likely to earn top placements on search engines, especially if you take steps to optimize it.
In some cases, domain name matters. Google sometimes penalizes exact-match domains where the target keyword is in the URL. You can avoid this if you have an exact-match domain viewed by Google as relevant, valuable, and high-quality (you may earn a ranking boost if that’s the case). However, if you already have an established website, you don’t need to look for an exact-match domain for your business.
The best route to choose a domain is to find a URL that reflects your business.
When it comes to SEO ranking factors, authority is a major one. Authority consists of a combination of quality content and off-page SEO signals like inbound links and social shares. It also includes the authority of your content creators.
You can check domain or page authority with Open Site Explorer. Plug your URL into the search box, and you’ll get a report showing domain authority, page authority, established links, and new links.
Content is one of the most important search ranking factors. So, what makes content SEO-friendly?
Google’s search algorithm relies on keywords – the words, phrases, and questions searchers use when looking for information online. They’re also the words and phrases that describe what your site is about.
Those two things must match up, which is why it’s essential to use keywords in your content.
SEO isn’t just about the main keyword. Including words associated with the main terms people search for is also important. These are known as LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords. These LSI keywords provide a form of online word association that helps Google understand which results to present.
For instance, using appropriate LSI keywords will let Google know that when searchers type in “mini,” your page is about the car, not a type of skirt.
Be aware: As more people conduct voice searches, optimization must consider questions and natural language searches. Some LSI keywords will be longer because people speak differently than they type.
The keywords people use will change depending on whether they want to:
Find a specific website (navigational)
Get an answer to a question (informational)
Gather information prior to making a purchase (investigational)
Buy something (transactional)
Business sites must have content for each of these types of searches.
Keyword-stuffing or keyword-packing (including too many keywords in close proximity in an inorganic fashion) is a poor strategy because it delivers a bad online reading experience.
Duplicate content is fatal to Google. For SEO, fresh, original content is necessary. If you have similar content, tell Google which one it should rank using canonical URLs.
The length of your content is also a ranking factor. Google expects high-quality content to be long enough to cover the subject entirely (this doesn’t mean every piece of content has to read like a novella, of course).
More and more, Google delivers answers to queries through answer boxes, often referred to as the “zero position” because it appears above the first Google result. Some things you can do to optimize content for answer boxes include:
Answering questions (e.g., FAQs)
Including questions as headings
Ensuring answers on your site are correct, relevant, and not too long
Targeting content to keywords that currently have answer boxes
Adding lists or tables to your website
Something to consider: One issue with answer boxes is that many people never click on the content because they’re satisfied with the simple answer.
Finally, you must include video and other visual content on your website. Many people prefer these formats to written material, and Google will be more likely to serve it up to people who like it.
Getting the code right is critical for earning better search engine rankings. Here are some things you can do to send the right signals to Google, Bing, and other search engines:
Add keyword phrases in page titles – this is the first place Google looks to determine what a page is about
Use proper header tags to structure your content hierarchy, starting with the title at h1 and then using h2 or h3 for lower-level subheadings
Create meta descriptions that include your keyword phrase and encourage people to check out your content (keep meta descriptions under 160 characters)
Leverage keyword phrases in image alt tags to show how those images relate to the content (alt tags also help people who are visually impaired engage with your site through screenreaders)
Use schema markup to explain to Google the type of content you offer
Much of this can be done through simple plugins you can add to your site.
Google seeks out specific signals that indicate visitors have a good experience on your site. These include:
Click-through rate: The percentage of people who click to visit your site when it’s served up in search results
Bounce rate: The percentage of people who visit your page and quickly return to the search results
Dwell time: The time visitors stay on your site
In short, Google wants to see that people like to spend time on your digital property and get value out of the experience. If you have a high bounce rate or low dwell time, figure out the issue and fix it. Otherwise, you’re just sending ongoing bad signals to search engines.
Google uses three types of links to understand site quality.
1. Inbound Links
Google checks inbound links to determine how authoritative and relevant your content is. In an ideal situation, an authoritative site includes an appropriate link to a piece of your content in their content. For example, the American Medical Association adds a link to a medical practice website in one of its articles. That is a huge signal to Google that the medical practice website is authoritative and trustworthy.
Inbound links are often referred to as “backlinks.” You want many highly authoritative sites to link back to you. Conversely, you should avoid inbound links from low-quality domains, as they could signal to Google that your content is junk. SEMrush offers a tool that allows you to check your backlinks.
If you do one thing to optimize your site, start networking with respected experts and organizations in your industry and work with them to come up with mutually beneficial and meaningful backlinks.
2. Outbound Links
A top goal is to demonstrate to Google that you create and present quality content to your visitors. One way to do that is to include outbound links to relevant, authoritative sites in your industry. Avoid link-packing your content. As you perform content research, pull information from reliable sources with high domain authority and link to it when learning more about a topic that could provide value to a reader.
3. Internal Links
Linking to your own content ties pages together for both Google and your visitors. This makes each page more valuable. It encourages visitors to check out more content (a great signal to Google) and is a sign that search engine bots should crawl additional pages.
Tip: All three link types include descriptive anchor text. When you add a link to your content, it should clearly describe what the link is pointing to.
When people like, comment on, and share your content through social media posts on platforms like Facebook, it signals to search engines (and users) that you’re doing something right. There is a solid link between popular content on social media and pages that rank highly.
Google claims that it doesn’t track social media activity. What’s likely is that:
More social shares and buzz generate more traffic to the page itself
Liked posts earn broader distribution, attracting more visitors
All this activity is likely to earn you more backlinks
In short, getting social media activity does help your search engine rankings, if only indirectly.
The presence of complete, accurate, and current business information remains one of the top SEO ranking factors, especially for companies serving local markets.
If you don’t have a Google Business Profile (GBP), set one up now. Follow all the steps when you sign in after your address is verified (you must manually confirm your address before setting up the profile). Don’t skip any information or input anything incorrectly. You will be penalized for it. Add plenty of photos of your business and regularly post them to your profile. If some aspect of your business changes, ensure it’s reflected on GBP immediately.
All else being equal, Google will prefer a business with the more robust Google Business Profile.
SEO Ranking Factors: The Bottom Line
If you follow the advice in this guide and focus on these critical contributors to SEO success, your rankings should improve over time. Check out the other content in this guide to learn more about search engine optimization. Keep on the lookout for the latest Google algorithm updates, which can happen anytime – it will help keep your site from falling behind when the search engine adjusts the factors it considers to determine its rankings.
What’s the Future of SEO?
It’s almost impossible to predict what’s next for search engine optimization. Google and its algorithm are just too unpredictable.
Despite this uncertainty, we’ve identified some things that could impact your SEO efforts in the years ahead.
Downplaying of Voice Search
For a long time, it seemed like voice search was going to be the next big thing that dominated Google. The truth: It’s not growing at the rate many industry professionals expected. This may be because of the common use of masks for health reasons. Or, it could simply be that people aren’t talking to their computers and other devices as much as they used to, except when driving. Voice search is even tanking on Google Trends. If you’re focused on voice search as a primary SEO strategy, it might make more sense to shift your attention in the future.
IndexNow Becomes How Google Discovers Content
There is some indication that Google will become the next search engine using the IndexNow protocol or something similar (Bing and Yandex already do). IndexNow is an open-source engine used by search engines to discover new content. Instead of using the conventional pull approach, it uses a push method. In other words, when a website integrated with the IndexNow API updates its content, the API pushes this information out to search engines. This means search engines no longer have to crawl pages that haven’t changed.
One of the critical benefits of IndexNow is that it prevents excess crawl load, which can help reduce the energy needed to identify content on the web. Google wants to become a 100 percent renewable company by 2030. Because IndexNow is carbon neutral, it seems likely Google will adopt it soon.
It’s easy to enable the IndexNow API:
Create and download the API key from Bing
Upload the downloaded text file to the root of your server
Submit bulk or individual URLs to individual search engines with the following URL parameters:
Prepare to Play “MUM”
Google has been committed to improving the quality of search results using advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) for a long time. That won’t change in the years ahead.
Google’s first advances were the introduction of RankBrain and BERT. Now, it’s slowly rolling out its next-generation Multitask United Model (MUM). MUM is expected to be 1,000 times more powerful than BERT. It’s capable of multitasking which allows it to analyze video, images, and text in 75 languages, making it possible to give users answers to very complex search queries. MUM will pull together different aspects of a query and try to understand the sentiments, context, and search intent of users to provide answers that closely match what they really want.
Google is still testing MUM, but it should soon become part of the Google ecosystem. When it’s fully launched, you will likely see an announcement similar to the one for BERT.
Here are some impacts MUM could have on search once implemented:
More zero-click results will be presented (which is already happening)
The use of structured data from Google’s Knowledge Graph fed by the markups within each site will make results more accurate
Long-form content will become even more critical because it can provide a large share of the information that answers a query
Natural content that addresses pain points experienced by your audience will become more critical
Content written with simple and clear language and no jargon will be rewarded
Optimize for LaMDA
Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) was introduced in 2021 by Google. This advanced conversation technology promises to continue to significantly impact search, especially the queries that happen through Google Assistants. LaMDA makes conversations natural by gathering information from Google’s Knowledge Graph, and allows Google to carry on open-ended conversations with users.
LaMDA is a transformer-based model similar to BERT and MUM. It can be trained to read words, understand the relationship between words in a sentence, and predict what word might come next.
Google is currently focused on training LaMDA to produce clear and sensible responses instead of generic answers.
Structure Your Content for Passage Indexing
With Passage Indexing, Google will now use its natural language processing (NLP) feature while indexing web pages. This will help Google understand the meaning of each passage within the page.
As a result, a particular section of an article will appear on search results for specific search queries, even if it’s buried inside a broader piece of content. Sites with longer, well-written, and properly structured content that Google can mine for valuable passages stand to benefit from this change. It’s time to prepare for this by ensuring your content is clear, structured by topic, and information-packed.
Search Intent Becomes Central
The future is now. Relevant search terms still matter, but it’s time to prioritize the intent of search queries and overall user behavior over everything else.
People’s search intent, patterns, and behavior change all the time. Users go to Google or other search engines to find answers to their questions, learn about something in general, research things they want to purchase, or find a supplier for what they want to buy.
When businesses understand what people are searching for and provide them with content that answers their questions – and is aligned with their intent – they will benefit by having more users directed to their sites. Think not only “what,” but “why,” “when,” ”where,” and “how.”
What’s important is to move away from old-school SEO tactics and focus on delivering genuine content experiences that meet user needs. Google keeps getting smarter and smarter, which means it will be less likely to respond to attempts to “trick” it.
The best way to understand user intent is to develop complete personas of your target customers, including their mindset, values, and reasons for purchasing. Having this information should get you to their search intent, which will help you create better content to meet it.
If you use artificial intelligence (AI) to autogenerate content, it might be time to stop. Even the best AI-generated copy has unnatural patterns and can’t consider intent. Google will spot it and penalize your site for it.
Humans still win this round.
Localized SEO Becomes More Powerful
Google has been making localized search a bigger and bigger priority for a while now. Part of the reason for this is that the vast majority of businesses in the U.S. — and across the globe — are small, localized ones.
That means it’s necessary to get active on Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business, GMB), the primary driver of localized search activity.
Ensure your Google Business Profile is accurate and up-to-date
Regularly post new information
Add new photos often
Encourage customers to provide good ratings and reviews
All things being equal, the company with the best, most complete, and most active Google Business Profile in a metro area will get featured over the others.
Proving ROI Based on User Intent
Google’s data reporting keeps getting better and better. This trend will continue well into the future. Behavioral analytics will become one of the significant areas of focus for Google in the years ahead. Keyword volume will become less important than what’s driving clicks.
Businesses must move beyond the terms their consumers are searching for and also focus on the following:
What their customers are doing
How they are doing it
What they could be thinking and feeling
What you can do to make them take action on your site faster
Bottom Line: In the future, you’ll have to reverse engineer all these factors into the content you produce. It won’t be enough to create materials aligned with a search term. They must also reflect what’s in the heads and hearts of searchers.
Behavioral analytics will reveal content opportunities that keyword research fails to identify. It will require you to understand your consumers completely and give them ideal content solutions. Otherwise, you risk losing them to a competitor that understands them better and provides them with materials more aligned with their intent.
Digital marketers will need to work more closely with salespeople and customer service reps to understand their buyers’ concerns so they can be addressed in online content.
If you’re not already, you must analyze your Google Search Console keyword data with common question modifiers to find relevant topics that should be addressed. Make it a point to answer these queries clearly in prominent places on your website. This is the first step toward creating content that addresses people’s feelings and motivations.
Knowledge Graphs Connect the Internet More Closely
We will likely see personalized knowledge graphs in the near future.
For better or worse, Google has a great deal of information about everyone, including search history, online behavior, email habits, and social media activity. This means it may be able to scale up — and speed up — the process of personalizing knowledge graphs. Knowledge graphs are multi-dimensional profiles of Google’s users.
What does this mean for the future of SEO? Companies must optimize their entire digital presence, including their social media profiles, Youtube channels, etc., to get Google to feature them whenever possible in the ways they want. Google will consider all of a brand’s digital assets in the future, similar to how it does for individual users so it can create knowledge graphs.
Google’s knowledge of people will soon be more complete – soon, what it knows about companies will as well.
All SEO Is Mobile SEO
This is old news, but it bears repeating: SEO is all about mobile – not so much about computers. People still use laptops and desktops regularly, but nowhere near the levels they’re using mobile smart devices. There is no sign this will change in the future. Mobile device user experience must be a big focus for all SEO efforts.
Simplicity is key to a user-friendly mobile web design. If your site is complicated or design-heavy, it’s time to update it. You must personalize your website content according to the needs of your visitors, no matter where or how they’re using their phones and tablets. Google will soon ignore your desktop site entirely and focus on your mobile experience for its rankings.
So, if you haven’t done much to optimize your site for mobile, it’s time to shift your focus entirely to it. And if you already offer a decent mobile experience, take time to ensure it beats those of your competitors.
Long-Form Content Will Be Key
Consistently publishing long-form and relevant content on your website will be a necessary tactic for beating your competitors. The content should adhere to E.A.T (expertise, authority, trustworthiness) guidelines and be long enough to cover the topic and address user intent completely. Depending on the situation, blogs of 2,000 to 4,000 words in length may be the norm for businesses taking SEO seriously.
Future of SEO: The Final Word
You don’t know what you don’t know. Google has a long history of surprising even the most seasoned SEO pros. If you do anything in the future, look out for Google algorithm updates. Proactively seek them out and set news alerts. You’ll likely see overnight alerts from Google that could force you to change your search engine optimization strategies and tactics in the morning. Still, it pays to be prepared.
What Is the Difference Between Paid and Organic Search?
It’s critical that you understand what’s different and similar between organic (natural) search – which is primarily impacted by search engine optimization (SEO) – and paid search – which is dependent on spending, bidding, and keyword selection.
Differences Between Paid and Organic Search
Here are six key differences between these two digital marketing approaches:
1. Paid Search Typically Appears Higher on the Page than Organic
A key difference is where the results appear on the search engine results pages (SERPs). Paid search listings show up at the top of SERPs, whereas organic results appear beneath them (even the zero-position ones that top the organic list). Note that organic results sometimes sit beside the paid ones depending on the device. Also, in some cases, certain paid results may appear at the end of SERPs, especially if a term or query has a high number of companies bidding for it.
2. Organic Search Is a Long-Term Game; Paid Is Short
Another critical difference between paid and organic search is time. With paid search, you can enjoy near-instant results. Depending on how good your bidding strategies are, you could get great results in minutes. Even if you need to optimize your campaigns, you could start enjoying benefits in days or weeks. With organic search, earning top search positions takes more time – often weeks, months, or even years. Be patient when it comes to organic search.
3. By Definition, You Pay for Paid Results; You May Have to Put Up Cash to Earn Organic Ones
Paid search, as the name suggests, costs money. You pay per click (PPC) on a cost-per-click (CPC) basis. Google takes a cut every time a user clicks on your ad. Put simply, you purchase traffic to your page by bidding so Google shows your ad in the most advantageous position you can afford. The goal with paid search is to beat other businesses bidding for the same term so you show up in the top three paid results. Instead of relying on organic traffic to your website, you can take control by buying it. Organic search traffic is essentially free, although it does require an investment of both resources and time to get it right.
4. It’s Easier to Measure ROI for Paid Search
When it comes to return on investment (ROI), paid search results are much easier to measure than organic. Google Ads provides more specific keyword data than you can find in Google Analytics. The immediate hard costs associated with Google Ads are also easier to track than the longer-term, softer costs related to SEO to earn organic results.
5. Paid Versus Organic Search: Short-Term Results or Long?
Paid search campaigns tend to start out hot, but results can cool over time. It’s necessary to refresh your paid strategy regularly to keep a consistent flow of traffic coming to your website. Organic search, backed by the right SEO strategies, tends to improve as time goes by.
In short, paid search campaigns can burn out quickly. However, over the long term, organic search efforts tend to get better and better, delivering improved results.
6. Organic Search Delivers a Higher Share of Search Traffic
Most people know that Google Ads results are paid for, and organic ones are earned. Searchers are more likely to click on organic posts because they’re more trusted. According to many sources, organic posts typically get more than twice as many clicks as paid ones. The most potent combination is great organic performance coupled with a solid paid campaign. Seeing your business in two positions on SERPs conveys to most searchers that your company is one to consider.
Similarities Between Paid and Organic Search
Paid and organic search are different in many ways, but they also have plenty in common.
Solid Keyword Research Is Critical for Both Paid and Organic Search
Search engines drive both paid and organic search results – both methods require a user to enter keywords or queries. You must conduct careful keyword research for organic search and paid advertising campaigns. Unless you register for the correct terms, your organic and paid search efforts won’t generate results.
Paid and Organic Search Must Deliver People to Landing Pages that Compel Action
Both types of search require landing pages that encourage users to buy things, book appointments, or interact with a brand. You also need to make sure that the page loads quickly so people don’t abandon it after they click. If they do, you’re paying for clicks that have no chance to pay off. The page content must answer the query immediately so people feel compelled to read on. Make your calls to action bold and easy to find so people can contact and do business with you the moment they’re ready.
Both Paid and Organic Search Will Drive Traffic to Your Site
Generating quality traffic is the goal of both paid and organic search marketing. Quality traffic can only emerge when you take into account user intent. The why (mindset) behind a search is more important than the what (the actual search term). When someone asks Google a question or is searching for information, they are in an active mindset. Whether they click on an organic link or a paid one, they are more likely to take action on a website that responds to their intent compared with one that merely explains the term or answers the query.
The best way to understand a visitor’s intent is to develop in-depth buyer personas of the people in your consumer base. Developing personas will force you to think through your customers’ mindset and why they do business with you instead of your competitors. This nuanced information will help you understand the why behind their Google searches so you can address it on your website and landing pages.
Paid Versus Organic Search: The Bottom Line
Paid and organic search are more different than they are similar, but they share some commonalities. The key takeaway is that for most businesses, the two should work in tandem to drive quality traffic to websites. Strike the right balance, and this combined search strategy could result in consistent and crucial business.
What Are the Three Pillars of SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) isn’t one-dimensional. In fact, SEO is a three-dimensional proposition built on three pillars (or key components): Technical Optimization, On-Page Optimization, and Off-Page Optimization. This chapter provides an overview of these three pillars of SEO and explains how to optimize your site for them.
1. Technical Optimization
Technical optimization involves doing things on your site that will improve SEO but are not related to content. These actions typically happen behind the scenes and are invisible to website visitors. Examples of technical optimization include:
Using SSL. Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is a security technology that creates a safe encrypted link between a web server and a browser. An SSL website URL starts with https:// rather than http://. Google prefers this added layer of security.
Ensuring your site is mobile-friendly. A responsive website design adjusts itself automatically so that it can be navigated and viewed easily on any device. More people use mobile devices than anything else, so Google bases more of its ranking on a site’s mobile experience than its desktop one.
Improving site performance. Search engines prefer sites that load quickly. Page speed is a critical ranking signal.
Eliminating duplicate content. Duplicate content can be confusing for website visitors and search engine algorithms. Content that drives a lot of search traffic is often duplicated by disreputable sites to try to manipulate search rankings and attract more visitors. Search engines are on the lookout for duplicative content, whether on a single site or across the internet. They will significantly penalize sites they believe are attempting a duplicative content scam.
Creating an XML site map. An XML site map is a file that helps search engines understand your website while crawling it. It is essentially a roadmap that explains to bots exactly where each page is, its priority on your website, and when and how frequently it’s updated.
Registering your site with Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tool. These free tools from Google and Microsoft allow you to submit your website to their search engines for indexing.
These are just a few examples of things you can do to technically optimize your website for search.
2. On-Page Optimization
On-page optimization ensures the content on your site is relevant, high quality, and comprehensive, all while delivering a great user experience. This form of optimization includes targeting the right keywords in your content, properly writing and structuring your content, and leveraging credible and authoritative creators. Most of this optimization happens in the content development process when writing blog posts or web pages, developing videos, or producing podcasts. Additional on-page optimization is done through the back end of a content management system such as WordPress, Wix, Drupal, Joomla, Magento, Shopify, or Expression Engine – examples include tagging headlines and subheads properly and adding clear photo descriptions.
3. Off-Page Optimization
Off-page optimization is about doing things to improve your site’s search engine rankings that involve connecting with other websites. The first part of this strategy is to get backlinks from reputable sites pointing to your content. Earning these backlinks typically involves networking with influencers in your industry and doing outreach to respected leaders in your field. At the same time, you must add helpful links to the content on your site to other reputable and authoritative domains. These links help convey authority on your website, something Google and other search engines seek out.
Over time, off-page optimization becomes easier as your website becomes more visible in search and owners of respected sites find yours online. Still, the effort to earn backlinks will go a long way to help build your site’s reputation, earning you serious SEO cred.
The Three Pillars of SEO: The Final Word
Getting just one or two of the pillars right isn’t enough to earn you top search positions. You must nail all three aspects of SEO and keep them in balance to win.
Maintaining that balance is challenging because of Google’s constantly-changing algorithm. What’s critical is that you stay up-to-date with the latest algorithm updates.
You must also watch your Google metrics to ensure nothing is happening to the performance of your site that could negatively impact it in search. If you see something going wrong, it could be a sign that Google changed some aspect of its algorithm under one of these three pillars, and it’s time to identify it to fix the issue. Or, it could be that your competitors are optimizing their sites for search better than you are, and it’s time to up your game.
How Do Search Engines Work?
People use search engines (typically Google) when they need information about a topic, product, service, business, or anything else.
Search engines use algorithms to help guide people to the content they are looking for online. Algorithms are computer programs that seek out clues on web pages to help search engines learn about their material, quality of content, and overall page experience. The goal of search engine algorithms is to understand web content extremely well. Once the algorithm understands the content on a page, the search engine can serve the page up on search engine results pages (SERPs) when it will provide satisfactory answers to people’s queries. In short, search engines leverage algorithms to find web pages, understand the information on them, and decide which ones to rank for any given keyword or query.
It takes three steps for search engines to find, understand, and serve-up pages: crawling, indexing, and ranking.
Search Engine Step One: Crawling
Search engines send out web crawlers to identify new pages and record information about them. These web crawlers are referred to as spiders, robots, or bots for short. In addition to discovering new pages, these bots regularly check the content on pages they’ve previously crawled to see whether it’s changed or been updated.
Search engines crawl web pages by following links they’ve already discovered. So, if you have a blog post linked from your homepage, when a search engine crawls your homepage, it will then find — and may follow — the link to your new blog post.
Some search engines also accept signals from websites loaded with a specific code provided by IndexNow that informs them when a new page is added to a site or when content or other things change. IndexNow or something similar to it developed by Google will likely replace crawling as the primary way search engines monitor website content because it requires less energy and is far more environmentally friendly than old-school crawling.
Search Engine Step Two: Indexing
Indexing is what happens when a search engine decides whether or not it is going to register the content it has crawled. When a search engine decides a page of content is worthwhile, this page gets added to its index. When a web page or piece of content is indexed, it’s filed and stored in a database where it can later be recommended to searchers. Most web pages that provide unique, valuable, well-packaged content (fast page load time, effective layout) are placed into the index. A web page might not be indexed if:
Its content is duplicative of other existing content
Its content is considered of low value, poor quality, or spam
It couldn’t be crawled
The page or domain lacks inbound links, meaning it can’t be found
The page experience is poor
Search Engine Step 3: Ranking
Once a search engine has crawled and indexed your site's pages, the pages can be ranked.
There are more than 200 ranking signals that search engines consider when sorting and ranking content. The factors fit within the three pillars of SEO:
Learn more about these in the chapter about the three pillars of search engine optimization.
Some examples of signals that search engines use to rank web pages are:
Keyword presence in the title tag and page. A keyword or a synonym must be included a few times on the page and within the title tag for a search engine to register it for a query.
Web page loading speed and user experience for mobile devices. Whether a web page loads quickly and is mobile-friendly are key search engine ranking factors.
Website and page reputation. Reputation is all about whether a web page, site, and author are considered reputable and authoritative about a search topic.
Content quality. The content must be well-written, scannable, and properly formatted.
Rankings start at position zero (the brief snippet that appears near the top of a SERP) through the final number of search engine results for the query. A web page and its content can only rank in a single position at a time. Over time a web page’s ranking might change because of its age, competition over the term being searched, or changes to the search engine algorithm.
Visibility is a term related to rankings – it describes how prominent a particular domain is in the search engine results. Lower search visibility occurs when a domain isn’t visible for many relevant search queries. The opposite is true for a domain with higher search visibility.
How Search Engines Work: The Bottom Line
Now that you have a basic understanding of how search engines function, you can take steps to optimize your site so its pages rank higher in search results.
How to Optimize a Website for Technical SEO
Technical SEO involves improving the technical or back-end aspects of a website to improve the ranking of its pages on search engines like Google or Bing. Making a website faster, easier to crawl, and more comprehensible to search engines are vital aspects of technical optimization. This chapter explains what you need to know to ensure the technical performance of your digital properties is top-notch.
Why It’s Critical to Technically Optimize a Site
Google and other search engines are service businesses. They strive to deliver to their users the best possible results and online experiences for their queries. As such, search engine bots crawl websites and evaluate them on many factors:
Some are related to the user’s experience, like how quickly a page loads or its appearance on a smart device.
Others help search engines know what your pages are about.
Some look for links within your site and to other sites.
By improving the technical aspects of your site, you help search engines crawl and understand it while demonstrating that it delivers a good visitor experience. If you optimize the technical aspects of your digital properties, you will likely be rewarded with higher rankings, more visitors, and additional prospective buyers.
The reverse is also true: If you have serious technical issues on your site, they will likely cost you. Such issues could slow performance to a point where faster sites beat yours in search. Worse yet, bots may struggle to crawl it and fail to understand what it's about.
Technically Optimizing Your Site for Search, Step by Step
Search engines prefer websites that demonstrate specific technical characteristics – for example, a secure connection, a mobile-friendly design, and a fast loading time. Technical optimization is what you must do to ensure search engines deem your site’s performance up to par.
Here are the steps you must take to tech-optimize your website. Making this effort will be well worth the reward in additional visitors and business.
1. Secure Your Site Experience
Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is a security technology that creates an encrypted link between a web server and a browser. An SSL-secured site has a URL that begins with https:// rather than http://. This might seem like a small difference, but it has a big impact.
Google has preferred SSL sites since 2014 – it only makes sense to ensure your site is secure by installing an SSL certificate. Most common website builders now include SSL by default.
This is a straightforward step you can take to improve your rankings.
2. Make Your Site Mobile-Friendly
A responsive site adjusts automatically so it can be navigated and read on any device. Google doesn’t just believe having a mobile-friendly site is essential. Its latest algorithms prioritize the mobile experience over the laptop or desktop ones.
Don’t just deliver a decent mobile experience on your site. Make sure all aspects of this interface are superior. Doing so will earn you top rankings and help you maintain them over time.
3. Eliminate Dead Links
Dead or broken links (those that don’t link to other pages and result in 404 errors) deliver a poor user experience and confuse search engines when they crawl a site. Consistently monitor your site for dead links, which can result when pages are eliminated or when URLs change. Google Search Console includes a broken link report option for monitoring websites for content with broken links. It includes:
Internal 404 errors
Web pages linked to your web pages using incorrect URLs
External links returning 404 errors
4. Up Your Site Speed
Search engines prefer sites that load quickly. Page speed is an important ranking signal. No one has the patience to wait for a site to load – especially on mobile devices.
Here are some ways you can speed up your site:
Use a fast hosting service.
Leverage a speedy domain name system (DNS) provider.
Minimize HTTP requests by limiting the use of scripts and plugins.
Use one CSS stylesheet, which is the code used to tell a website browser how to display your website, instead of multiple CSS stylesheets or inline CSS.
Ensure your image files are as small as possible.
Compress your web pages.
Watch your website speed in Google Analytics. This will help ensure that nothing unintentional happens on your site that slows things down and harms your position in search.
5. Eliminate Duplicate Content
Duplicate content, on top of being confusing for visitors, signals a big issue to search engines. Disreputable websites often duplicate popular content from their own sites or from others to trick search engines into sending more traffic to the duplicate material.
Google, Bing, and other search engines are on the lookout for this issue and significantly penalize websites that attempt the duplicative content scam.
You can avoid this issue by:
Preventing your CMS from publishing more than one version of a page or post by turning off Session IDs when they are not critical to website functionality and eliminating printer-friendly versions of your content.
Using canonical links lets search engines know which versions of your content are the primary ones bots should crawl and which are secondary and shouldn’t be crawled.
Assign a content owner for your website – they should document all the content you publish to prevent duplication. Your content owner can also stay on the lookout for dead or outdated material that could harm your search performance.
Check all your website content using a plagiarism checker. This can help prevent publishing content that a writer cuts, pastes, and submits from another source.
Ensure your material is at least 50 percent different from other content on the web – this will prevent search engines from becoming suspicious of your website.
6. Develop an XML Site Map
An XML site map is a file that makes it easier for search engines to understand your website while they crawl it. Think of it as a search roadmap that tells search engines where each page is.
The site map also includes information about each website page, including:
When it was added
When it was last updated
How often it’s updated
Its priority on your site
Many standard business website platforms automatically build an XML site map for you. If yours doesn’t, you can use an XML site map generator to create one for you.
7. Consider Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
AMP is a Google-backed initiative. As its name suggests, its goal is to speed up content delivery on mobile devices. It does this through a code known as AMP HTML.
AMP versions of your web pages load fast on mobile devices. AMP does this by stripping your content and site code down to minimal levels. The critical aspects remain in place, including text, images, and video, but less-necessary elements like scripts, comments, and forms get disabled.
Because AMP pages load so quickly, they’re far more likely to be read and shared by visitors. Over time, this will improve your website stats in Google Analytics, resulting in better positions on search engine results pages (SERPs).
Added benefit of AMP: Google sometimes highlights AMP pages in prominent carousels in search results, which can provide you with added traffic.
9. Add Structured Data Markup
Structured data markup is code you add to your website. It helps search engines understand the content on it. This data allows search engines to index your site more effectively and helps them serve up your content to the people who will most benefit from it.
Structured data can enhance your search listings by adding elements like star ratings to reviews, prices to products, and reviewer information. Because these enhanced listings are more visually appealing and provide additional valuable information to searchers, they can improve your click-through rate (CTR) and generate extra website traffic.
10. Register With Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
When you’re ready to launch your website, you should submit its XML sitemap to both Google Search Console and Webmaster Tools so they can crawl it and display results from it on search engine results pages.
These services also allow you to monitor your site's performance from a search engine perspective. The tools also allow you to:
Test your site’s mobile usability
Access search-related analytics
View backlinks to your site
Disavow spammy links
Technical Search Optimization: The Bottom Line
A tech-optimized site:
Is easy for search engines to crawl
Doesn’t confuse search engines with duplicative content
Doesn’t have dead links
A site that performs well from a technical perspective delivers a great user experience. Google and other search engines will see this and reward the site with a better position in their SERPs.
On-Page Optimization: What it Is and How to Get it Right
At its simplest, on-page optimization involves ensuring the content on your website is relevant, delivers a great visitor experience, and communicates clearly to Google and other search engines what it’s about – it is a critical foundational part of overall search engine optimization (SEO).
In years past, many businesses approached on-page optimization as a keyword-stuffing exercise. They mentioned their keywords as often as possible in their content. Unsurprisingly, keyword packing made for a terrible reader experience. Search engines caught up with this and started penalizing websites that packed their pages with keywords.
Today, on-page optimization still involves targeting keywords. However, a successful optimization strategy is now more about delivering a good user experience – ensuring your content reads well and satisfies what visitors are looking for.
On-page optimization starts with the content development process and continues with ongoing work through a content management system (CMS) like WordPress or Wix. Another way to think about on-page SEO is through pre-click and post-click optimization efforts. This chapter explains both types of activities, along with everything else you need to know to get on-page search engine optimization right.
Pre-Click On-Page Optimization
Pre-click on-page optimization involves the things you must do to generate an effective listing on a search engine results page (SERP). This includes getting the title tag, URL, and meta description right. The goal of pre-click optimization is to encourage searchers to click on your SERP listing rather than a competitor’s.
Besides the main body copy, title tags are the most important on-page element to get right – they’re the beginning of the brief listing someone sees when they run a search.
Search engines pay close attention to the words in title tags. The words you include influence how well your web page will rank on SERPs for related queries.
Some of the ways title tags influence SEO include:
They are a crucial SEO signal and the most important place to include keywords.
Web pages rank higher if title tags are handled correctly.
They’re visible to searchers and help them decide which listing to click on.
The challenge with title tags is to find the right blend of incorporating keywords while creating tags searchers find clickable.
Here are some tips on using keywords in title tags:
Include primary and secondary keywords when possible.
Position main keywords near the beginning.
In most cases, the optimal title tag flow is as follows: Primary keyword > Secondary keyword > Brand name.
Avoid keyword packing.
Here’s how you can use title tag content to entice searchers to click on your link:
Use all the characters afforded to you. There is a limited amount of space available in a title tag. Target between 50 and 70 characters (depending on the device). Also, note that title tag character count changes now and then. Stay up-to-date on current character lengths. It’s also a good idea to optimize your tags for mobile devices, where the vast majority of searches take place.
Be descriptive and engaging. Explain the value of visiting the page in natural language. Promise something that will get people to click.
Use sentence separators to break up the copy and make tags readable.
Double-check that title tags don’t get cut off in awkward places.
Be aware: If you don’t provide a title tag, Google will create one for you, and it may not make the best case for why searchers should visit your page.
Meta description tags are visible on search engine results pages and the source code. The meta description tag is the short piece of descriptive text you see under the URL in a SERP.
Meta description tags are a critical component of on-page optimization. However, they're not a direct ranking factor. Including keywords in your meta descriptions won’t impact your ranking like adding them to title tags does. However, a well-written meta description could encourage someone to visit your page.
Meta descriptions are a medium-weight SEO signal. If done well, they will encourage people to click on your listing.
Here are ways to optimize your meta descriptions:
Keep them short and concise, up to two short sentences, at most, with a maximum of 115-120 characters for mobile display (155-160 characters for desktop).
If you used keywords in your title tag, don’t waste valuable real estate by including them in your meta description.
Be descriptive and engaging. If your page provides unique value, describe it to encourage click-throughs.
URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator, also known as a web address. URLs are positioned between title tags and the meta description in SERP listings. Over time, a page will build up trust and authority in search engines that are assigned to its URL. Changing a URL without redirecting can break that trust. Avoid changing a URL – try to get them right from the start.
URLs are lightweight SEO signals. They attract click-throughs from search results, and search engines leverage them to index and retrieve pages.
URLs are often generated from the main heading of the page. That’s okay as a default because it provides some relevancy. But the downside is that they often become long and repetitive and need to be shortened. When creating a URL for your web page:
Include your top keyword
Keep it concise, typically under 70 characters
Set the URL as you begin the page
Maintain standard URL conventions, including using dashes and lowercase characters
Post-Click On-Page Optimization
Headings, keywords, body copy, hyperlinks, images, and user satisfaction are the key elements you must consider for post-click on-page optimization.
Headings are a critical component of a web page. They provide an outline to Google and other search engines about what it’s about. The main heading is an H1 tag, secondary headings are H2 tags, and tertiary are H3 tags, all the way up to H6 tags. The tags are similar to the bullets in an outline. Visitors also typically scan headings before deciding whether or not to read the content on a page.
Headings are a mid-weight on-page SEO signal. They add relevancy and context to a page. When creating headings, it’s critical to ensure they benefit the visitor and aren’t just an SEO play. Still, it’s a good idea to include keywords in your headers if it happens naturally.
Keywords must be tailored to the type of page. Adding keywords can work differently depending on the page type:
Transactional pages (typically sales-oriented content) are keyword-centric and usually include the main keyword and close variants.
Informational pages, such as blog posts, tend to be more user-focused and include the main keyword along with supporting ones related to the subject matter.
No matter the type of page, try to include your keyword or a close variant in your page heading.
Main Body Copy
Of course, your content itself is a critical component of on-page optimization. Within your content is where visitors should find what they’re looking for. Naturally, search engines pay close attention to your content’s success in this regard, so it’s a heavy-weight on-page SEO signal. Not only do search engines monitor the actual content on the page and the signals that indicate how visitors respond to it, but they also check how it’s organized on the page. Search engines also look for keywords, keyword use, and whether they seem to occur naturally throughout the content.
Many content creators have questions about how long their body copy and other types of content should be. There are no hard-and-fast content length SEO guidelines. However, most SEO experts say content should meet visitor expectations and contain all the information needed to explain and satisfy what they searched for – it should also be long enough for search engines to understand what the page is about. E-commerce page content is often deemed adequate in as little as one hundred words. Informational content on a complex topic could take more than a few thousand words to be considered adequate, and there’s a lot of wiggle room in between.
From an SEO perspective, hyperlinks don’t necessarily help the page they appear on. These links actually benefit the page they link to. For instance, if you link to a page on another site, it conveys authority for that linked source. If you link to one of your site’s pages, it could help search engine bots find and crawl it. Internal linking is essential for getting new pages found online. You could also gain some on-page SEO juice if the pages you link to seem relevant and provide value to visitors.
Image optimization is a lightweight on-page SEO signal. Still, it’s critical to take steps to optimize these assets. Alt text should be added to images because they deliver a better on-site experience to visually-impaired people using screen readers, which will be recognized by search engines. In addition, search engines crawl the image alt text, providing an opportunity to include additional keywords on your web page.
Here’s what you need to do to optimize your images:
Add a concise description in the image alt text in your website CMS that accurately describes it using keywords if they work naturally.
Give images concise, meaningful filenames in the media library of your website CMS (they can be the same as your alt text).
Make images web-friendly by keeping them small yet high-quality and formatted as a .gif, .jpeg, .png, or .svg.
Taking these steps will ensure your website images improve your page rankings rather than harm them.
User satisfaction optimization is a critical part of any on-page SEO strategy. User satisfaction involves optimizing your website to improve the satisfaction of visitors by ensuring that your content delivers the answers search users are looking for. You do this by sending the right signals to search engines by:
Reducing bounce rates
Improving dwell time
Increasing clickthrough rates
Improving task completion
Leverage metrics in your content management system and Google Analytics to find weaknesses in these areas. User satisfaction optimization could involve anything from improving your content so visitors engage with more of it to improving page layouts or making calls to action (CTAs) clearer. You may also want to leverage a webpage visitor tracking software to identify specific areas where your page experience is failing your visitors.
On-Page Optimization: The Bottom Line
All forms of SEO are essential. However, on-page optimization is where the rubber hits the road – it delivers the ultimate experience online searchers seek. If you get all other aspects of SEO right and fail at on-page optimization, your site won’t rank, which often happens when companies hire technical SEO experts to fix their search problems.
A better way to succeed in search is to take a balanced approach to SEO, making on-page optimization a key priority.
How to Improve SEO When Your Rankings Take a Tumble
This guide has mostly been about earning top search engine result page (SERP) rankings or how to improve them.
But what should you do when your rankings fall? It can happen, and it may not be your fault.
This chapter explains what to do if your website or page rankings drop. After all, what goes up must come down, and it’s true for search rankings.
Track Your Rankings
If you take away one thing from this guide, it’s that you must stay on top of your search rankings. Google typically makes more than 3,000 changes to its algorithm each year. Some are tiny. Others are revolutionary. Still, this is an average of seven or eight changes a day. A LOT can happen to your search performance if you don’t pay constant attention to it.
Remember: It’s normal for your search rankings to fluctuate. However, if you see your rankings suddenly take a tumble, then you know you have a problem that needs fixing.
Common Reasons for Falling Google Rankings
Here are some reasons for tanking Google rankings.
A penalty is one of the least likely reasons your SERP positions are falling. In most cases, your site has not been penalized and you don’t need to worry about it. If you didn’t do anything questionable, like buying links, you don’t need to be concerned about remedying a penalty.
Here are some common things that Google penalizes:
Excessive reciprocal links (swapping links)
Duplicative content on your site
Duplicative content in different languages
Excessive H1 tags
Links from sites in another language
Manipulative footer links
Poor website timings
Keywords as the domain name
Rented links (time-bound, paid links)
Using blog networks
Too many links from affiliated businesses
Unnatural site-wide links
Overusing meta keywords
Comment spam and fakery
Content about manipulative SEO practices
Link building that happens too fast
Spam reports on your site
Too many forum links
Hiding site sponsors
Outbound links to suspicious sites
Excessive site optimization
Excessive outbound links
If you’ve followed the advice in this guide, it’s unlikely you’re consciously doing anything so egregiously wrong that your site will be penalized. However, Google changes its algorithm and the rules associated with it. Because of this, one day your site may not deserve a penalty – and the next, it will.
You can tell whether a penalty results from an algorithm change or another issue. An algorithmic penalty is the result of an algorithm change. A manual penalty is related to known spammy SEO tactics. If you receive a manual penalty, you will get a notification in Google Webmaster Tools. An algorithmic penalty isn’t disclosed by Google – it just happens when an algorithm changes. If you think you may have an algorithmic penalty, check the Moz directory of Google algorithm updates to see if something changed that could have had a negative impact on your site.
Links are a significant SEO factor. They’re how your site and content gain authority. A solid link profile will earn you higher rankings. A weaker link profile will tank them. Here are some common link-related issues that could harm your site.
If you see a quick dive in your search rankings, junk sites could suddenly be pointing traffic your way. Or, you’re pointing traffic to disreputable sites.
That’s why you must ensure your link profile is always top quality and above board. Use a backlink analysis tool like Semrush Backlink Checker to identify low-quality links. When you find bad links, contact the sites they appear on and ask to remove the link. In most cases, they will agree. If the site owner does not, use the Google disavow tool to disassociate your site from the link. Remove any links to disreputable sites from your site.
Most people aren’t aware that it’s possible to lose internal and external links, and the issue could cause your rankings to drop.
For instance, if you relaunch, rebrand, or redesign your site, you may inadvertently lose some links. It’s a natural result of redirects and transitioning your site. For example, if you delete an old blog post, then links pointing to that post aren’t going to work. This weakens the internal linking structure of your site, creates a bad visitor experience, and compromises your SEO.
Another reason you could lose an internal link is a faulty redirect. Faulty redirects are often associated with 301 redirects.
Because a 301 is called a permanent redirect, most people assume the redirect will stay in effect permanently. However, that isn’t always the case. If you develop a new site, you can 301 from the old domain to the new one without any issues. However, disconnects can happen when you update your site more than once. In most cases, redirects from older versions of a site are typically not passed on to newer ones. On top of that, if you get a new domain and an older domain expires, the 301s will no longer work.
If you discover a 301 issue, you must take steps to fix it. Either find the pages the 301s are trying to get to and reestablish the connection. If the links are dead, you can either remove them or recreate the missing pages to reestablish the connections.
Use a tool like Semrush to find URLs that aren’t working correctly. These broken links can harm your Google rankings. If you see an internal link that’s not working, fix it or remove it. If it’s an external link pointing to your site, contact the site owner and ask for it to be re-established. And if it’s an outbound link from your site to another, find another piece of content on the site — or another reputable site — to link to.
Improve Your Site
Tanking Google rankings can also result from site-related issues, including ones related to design, user experience, and speed.
Having a mobile-friendly design is critical, especially now as there are more Google searches on smartphones and tablets than on desktops. That’s why Google prioritizes the mobile experience over the desktop or laptop experience. If you’re not optimized for mobile users, make it a priority. Ensure navigation, font style and size, images, calls-to-action, and other website factors display and perform effectively on mobile devices.
User Experience (UX)
Google is committed to delivering great online experiences to its users. If you suspect that your user experience may be negatively impacting your search rankings, it’s time to check out your competition. Your rankings could be falling not because of something you did but because of actions taken by other businesses in your niche. If they made improvements to their site that make their user experience better than yours, it will move them ahead of you on SERPs. You’ll fall behind as a result.
If competitors serve their visitors better than you, make it a priority to upgrade your site.
People prefer fast-loading sites. Because of this, search engines prioritize and reward speed, too. If for any reason your page load time or any other aspect of your site performance slows down, Google could penalize you for it. Many things could cause a slowdown, including adding a large video or a slow-loading plug-in or changing servers. Check page timings on your Google dashboard. If you see them increasing, it could be the cause of the fall in your Google rankings. Take steps to determine the cause(s), then remedy it by compressing your photos, eliminating slow plugins, or doing anything else necessary to make your site faster. The longer the issue goes on, the more Google will lower your placements on SERP
Content is a critical component of Google’s rankings. A site or page is only as good as the information on it and how it’s presented. You may have done nothing to your site’s content, but you could end up taking a hit in Google because of it. That’s because your competitors may have improved their content, updated it, or they’re publishing new, high-quality material more frequently.
If you see a decline in your rankings, it could be a sign you need to refresh your old content and improve it or publish new, authoritative, and high-quality material on the subjects you want to rank for. It might also be worth checking out Google Trends to find out whether the world may have moved on because your keywords — and related content — have gotten stale, and it’s time to focus on more timely concepts.
Falling SERP Rankings: The Bottom Line
Going down a position or two in Google’s rankings happens even to the best-managed websites. However, if your site falls more than that or drops for a significant time, don’t wait to act. Simply use the advice in this chapter to trace the root cause and solve the problem.
How to Conduct Keyword Research
Google constantly changes its algorithm.
However, one thing stays certain: SEO has always been — and continues to be — based on sound keyword research.
This chapter explains:
What keyword research is
Why keyword research is important
How to conduct keyword research
How to choose the right keywords for your business
Keyword Research: The Basics
Keyword research is the process of looking into and analyzing search terms and queries people enter into search engines when they need information about a topic, product, or service. The purpose of keyword research is to use the data and information gained from it for search engine optimization (SEO) or other marketing planning purposes. Keyword research can identify the best Google queries to target based on how popular, competitive, and results-based they are.
Keyword Research: Why It’s Important
Keyword research helps you figure out which queries to target. This process provides valuable insights into the questions, concerns, and points of interest people in your target audience search for on Google. The things you learn about these search terms can help inform your content strategy and your broader marketing efforts.
People use keywords and terms to find solutions when doing online research. Marketers and business owners want to ensure their content shows up front and center on search engine results pages (SERPs) when people search for things related to the products or services they sell. Simply creating content based on what you want your audience to hear is a losing strategy. Instead, content is only effective when it’s about what people care about – keywords can help you identify just that.
Put simply, to create content that customers will connect with, you must do thorough keyword research.
Sound keyword research provides many benefits, including:
Marketing trend insights. Conducting adequate research helps you learn about current marketing trends so you can develop content about relevant topics related to the keywords and terms people in your audience search for.
Traffic growth. Identifying the right keywords will allow you to rank higher in search results, helping you get more traffic to your website.
New customers. If you find the keywords prospective customers care about and are able to develop content that gets them to take action, you’ll bring in new business.
Keyword Research: What to Focus On
There are three key things to pay attention to when conducting keyword research.
Google ranks content partly on its relevance. Relevance is where the concept of search intent enters the picture. Your content can only rank for a keyword or query if it meets the needs of online searchers. On top of this, your content must be the best of what’s available on the internet to top the SERPs. Google showcases the content that delivers the most significant value at the top of its results.
Google only supports sources it deems authoritative. That means your business must become a leading source by filling your site with helpful content developed by respected people and organizations. If Google doesn’t view you as a trusted leader in your industry – or you’re competing with particularly heavy hitters – chances of top SERP rankings are limited.
You must rank for keywords and queries people actually search for. It does you little good to rank to the top of a query almost no one is looking for. Volume is measured by monthly search volume (MSV), which is the number of times the keyword is searched per month across all audiences.
How to Conduct Keyword Research
Below are five steps to find the right keywords for your business.
Step 1: Make an initial list of relevant topics based on what you know about your business.
Come up with topics you want to rank for different topic buckets. Aim for approximately five to ten topic buckets that may be closely aligned with your business. You’ll use the topic buckets to help come up with some specific keywords later on. Think about the topics that regularly come up in sales conversations that relate to the products and services you sell.
Step 2: Come up with keywords for the topic buckets.
Now that you have the topic buckets you want to focus on, you can identify keywords that fall into each one. These can be individual keywords, phrases, or questions that are important to rank for in the SERPs because people in your target customer base are probably searching for them.
The result of this exercise isn't to come up with your final list of queries – it’s more of a brain dump of phrases you think prospective customers might use to search for information related to a topic bucket. You’ll cut the list back later so it isn’t too big to manage.
If you find it challenging to come up with these words, see what you’re ranking for now. This may spark some fresh ideas. You can find this information in Google Analytics. You can also ask current customers what they’d search for related to the things you sell.
Step 3: Do keyword research based on user intent.
User intent is currently one of Google’s top-ranking factors. Today, it's more critical that your web page addresses the problem a searcher intended to solve. Simply including the keyword the person searched is no longer good enough. So, how does this impact keyword research?
Keywords can have many meanings because of the intent of the search. You must be careful about how you interpret the keywords you target.
For instance, you own a jewelry store and want to rank for the term diamond. You want to make sure your content relates to engagement rings, carats, and clarity – not baseball or geometry. Deploying negative keywords – words and phrases that you don’t want your site to rank for – can help you hone in on this relevant user intent even further.
Step 4: Research related search terms.
If you find it challenging to generate enough keywords, check out the related search terms that show up when you type in a keyword into Google. When you type in your phrase and scroll to the bottom of Google's results, you'll find suggestions for searches related to your original ones. These keywords can help you develop ideas for ones you may want to add to your list. Take it to the next level and type the related keywords into the search engine to see what comes up. Or do the same through the Google Trends tool. It may help you identify some up-and-coming searches you are not aware of.
Step 5: Leverage keyword research tools to get fresh ideas.
Keyword research tools can help you come up with more keyword ideas based on exact match keywords and phrase match keywords based on the ideas you had. Google Keyword Planner is one example. How
How to Choose the Final Keywords You Want to Rank For
Once you have ideas for the keywords you want to rank for, it's time to refine and optimize your list. Here's how.
Leverage Google Keyword Planner to Limit Your List
You can use Google’s Keyword Planner to expand your keyword list. You can also leverage it to cut it back so it’s more manageable. Tools like these also allow you to find search volume and traffic estimates for the terms you're considering. Take the information you learn from Keyword Planner and leverage Google Trends to determine if the keywords you’re considering are increasing in popularity or falling.
Use the Keyword Planner to identify terms with too little or too much search volume. Before eliminating anything, check their trend history and projections in Google Trends. Some low-volume terms could be ones you should invest in now because they could pay off later.
Prioritize Easy Wins
Start by prioritizing keywords that you have a high chance of ranking for based on your website’s authority. These are ones that have relatively high volume but seem underserved from a content perspective, especially for high-quality, authoritative content.
You might also consider keywords that have little competition. Keywords that don’t have a lot of content competing for them could provide you with another easy win, especially if no one else is trying to claim them.
Check the MSV for Your Keywords
Regularly monitoring the monthly search volume for your keywords will help you identify fresh content ideas using them.
Monthly search volume is how many times a search query or keyword is entered into search engines each month. Google Trends can help you learn about keyword search volume, along with related terms, over time. If you see your keywords trending downward, it could be time to explore some alternatives, especially associated terms, that are becoming more popular.
Factor In SERP Features and Explore Keyword Options
Google offers many different types of search results. Selecting keywords that play into them could help you earn more search traffic.
Image packs are organic search results that show up as a horizontal row of images on a SERP. If there’s an image pack for your search term, you should create an image-heavy blog post to potentially win a place in it.
Featured snippets (also referred to as paragraph snippets) are short bits of text that appear at the top of search results to provide fast answers to common search queries. Understanding the searcher’s intent and providing brief, concise answers can help you earn a valued place in the zero SERP position (which is where you want to be).
List snippets (listicles) are search snippets made from posts outlining steps to do something from start to finish. These results are often featured in “How To” searches. Developing posts with clear, linear instructions and formatting can help you earn a position as a list snippet. For instance, if you own a paint store and create a post explaining simply the end-to-end instructions of how to paint a room, you could earn a list snippet position and, potentially, a lot of new paint customers.
Video snippets are the short videos that Google displays at the top of SERPs in place of text-based posts. Posting a top-quality, information-packed video on both YouTube and your website can help you win this placement. Tag your video correctly using your keywords so Google will feature it when people look for content related to the keyword.
Find the Right Mix of Head Terms and Long-tail Keywords in Each Bucket
Head terms are keyword phrases that are generally short and generic — they're typically just one to three words in length. Long-tail keywords are more extensive phrases typically made up of three or more words.
Always have a mix of head terms and long-tail terms in hand. This will deliver a balanced keyword strategy based on long-term goals while still delivering short-term wins. Head terms typically have higher search volume, making them more competitive and challenging to rank for than long-tail terms.
By taking a balanced approach in your keyword strategy, you keep the door open to heavy search volume by including head terms. You’ll also earn more targeted and often better-quality clicks for your long-tail terms. Long-tail searches are usually more specific, which means the searcher is more qualified because they’re closer to the end of the buying process. For instance, someone looking for “red semi-gloss latex paint” is probably more ready to purchase paint than someone just searching for “best paint.”
See How Competitors Rank for Your Keywords
Understanding what keywords your competitors are trying to rank for is a great way to find gaps in your keyword list. Of course, your competitors may have different business models than yours. However, you might discover concepts it makes sense to compete on. Also, don’t ignore keywords your competitors don’t seem to care about. They could be an excellent opportunity for you to own terms they might have missed.
How do you find out what keywords your competitors rank for? You could manually search for keywords and see what positions your competitors are in. Or you could leverage a tool like Semrush to help you learn about your competitors’ keyword strategies.
Keyword Research: The Bottom Line
In the end, there are no ultimate “best” keywords. There are simply those searched by the people you’re targeting when seeking information about the products and services you offer that also result in sales.
You must consider relevance, authority, and search volume when determining the best keywords for your business. Identify keywords with substantial (and growing) search volume that you can reasonably compete for based on the competition you're up against and your ability to produce content that beats the quality of what's currently ranking.
Once you have a keyword list, make a point to re-evaluate it every few months to ensure it’s performing as intended and that you’re not missing out on new opportunities. As your site gains greater authority in the SERPs, you may find that you can add more keywords to your lists to maintain your current presence and expand into new topical areas.
SEO Metrics You Must Monitor to Achieve Success
One of the best things about digital marketing, especially when compared with traditional offline promotional tactics, is that you can measure nearly every aspect of it. Tools like Google Analytics provide close-to-complete information about the performance of your website and search engine optimization (SEO) efforts so you know whether they’re performing as you intend.
The issue: The data available to monitor SEO and website performance is vast. It can be challenging for business owners and marketers to know the difference between tracking what really matters and getting overwhelmed by data that’s merely nice to have.
This chapter explains the metrics you must monitor to win at SEO.
Organic traffic is table stakes. It’s the traffic you get from search engine results pages (SERPs) without paying for Google Ads. If you don’t know what traffic Google sends to your website for free, you can’t possibly understand the effectiveness of your SEO efforts.
Your overall traffic can come from many sources, including search engines, social media, bookmarked links, links from other sites, and more. Narrowing your focus to organic search traffic helps you understand your website’s visibility in search for keywords you want to rank for. If your SEO strategies and tactics are working, the number of visitors you get from organic search queries should steadily increase.
To track organic traffic in Google Analytics, log in to your dashboard and select “Add Segment” in the default Audience Overview. Then select “Organic Traffic” and “Apply.” You should be able to view organic traffic as a percentage of your total traffic.
Click-Through Rate (CTR)
Your organic CTR is the percentage of people who visit your website after finding it on search engine results pages. For instance, if 10,000 searchers see your web page listing on SERPs and 100 people click through to your website, your CTR for that page is one percent (one hundred divided by ten thousand).
Organic CTR shows how well your search listing (including the title, meta description, and URL) captures the attention of the people in your target audience and whether it appeals to them.
If your CTR is low, it may mean your title or meta description is ineffective or the content isn’t relevant to what users are searching for. You can monitor your click-through rate in the Google Search Console under the “Performance” tab. You are able to track CTR by page, query, or device. Monitoring CTR by page gives you a clear picture of which content and related SERP information isn’t earning enough clicks. You can then take steps to make changes, such as making your meta descriptions more engaging or adjusting your content strategy.
Exit pages are the last ones your website visitors view before leaving. Your top exit pages are the ones that make people lose interest in your website and go elsewhere. If you’re losing visitors, you’re potentially losing business – that’s why it’s essential to track your top exit pages.
If you see that a large amount of traffic leaves after visiting a few specific pages, you may want to see if they are functioning well (load time, rendering, performance on different devices, or other technical issues), or if their content needs work.
To track exit percentage for individual pages in Google Analytics, navigate to “Behavior,” then “Site Content,” then “All Pages.”
To reduce your exit rates:
Ensure your page layout and content structure is easy to follow and comprehend.
Include clear internal links and calls to action to ensure visitors can easily navigate to other pages.
Check that your content is high-quality and engaging to the visitors you’re targeting.
Leverage visitor tracking software like Mouseflow to identify page issues. It can show you where visitors are losing interest in the content and falling off.
Pages Per Session
The pages per session metric indicates the number of pages your users check out on average before leaving your site. Typically, the higher the metric, the better, because it means visitors are looking at several pages and staying on your site for a relatively long time. However, it can be an issue if people are navigating from page to page to page without ever taking action.
To find your pages per session in Google Analytics, go to “Acquisition,” then “All Traffic,” and finally to “Channels.”
If your pages per session metric is low, it may indicate visitors don’t find your content engaging enough to check out other pages. Or, it means that your site or page navigation isn’t user-friendly. Use the tips mentioned above for fixing top exit pages to improve the number of pages viewed per session.
Average Page Load Time
Site speed on both mobile and computer devices has a significant impact on user experience, making it a critical ranking factor. You can find this metric on your Google Analytics dashboard under “Behavior,” and then “Site Speed.” You will be able to view your average load time for all your website pages or review the times for individual ones.
If things appear to be moving slowly, look into actions like reducing image sizes, simplifying plugins, updating apps on the backend, and more.
Core Web Vitals
Google is increasingly focused on rewarding websites that provide a top-tier user experience (UX) with high rankings on SERPs.
Typical performance metrics like load time focus on things that are easy to measure and fix but don’t really reflect the actual complete user experience. Google’s Core Web Vitals go beyond singular, one-dimensional performance data. Instead, they are user-centric performance metrics that serve as a more UX-centered way of measuring page load time and other factors.
The measurements that make up Core Web Vitals include:
First Input Delay (FID) – Quantifies the experience users feel when they first interact with a page.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – Measures visual stability and quantifies the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible page content.
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – Measures perceived load speed by quantifying when a page’s main content is completely loaded.
The “Enhancements” section of the Google Search Console tells you how the pages on your site perform based on Core Web Vitals. You can also leverage Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool to access these metrics, along with recommendations on improving your site’s performance.
Backlinks and Referring Domains
Backlinks and referring domains are two critical signals Google checks when determining site rankings. They help indicate the quality of your content based on the authority of the sites that refer traffic to it.
The number of backlinks includes all the links from external sources pointing to your site. Referring domains are the number of unique domains linking to your content.
Important to note: The quality of backlinks is more critical than quantity. Five links from authoritative, high-quality domains are much more valuable than 200 backlinks from average or junk domains. Also, links from new referring domains are typically of more value than ones from those that have linked to you in the past.
Leverage a tool like Ahrefs to monitor your backlinks and referring domains. If they’re not as solid as you need them to be, start building relationships with experts, influencers, and educators in your industry and work with them to develop mutually beneficial link opportunities
Top Keywords Ranked
Make it a point to monitor how rankings for your keywords change over time. By understanding how you rank for them, you’ll get a sense of your current organic keyword share. Knowing this allows you to decide whether to focus on further optimizing your existing keywords or target new ones.
You can track your keyword rankings using a position-tracking tool like SEMrush. Its Organic Search Positions report helps monitor ranking changes over time to see whether things are improving or if you need to make changes to your SEO strategies to improve your search positioning.
Pages Crawled Per Day
A fast crawl rate means that Google crawlers can index your site and its pages quickly and easily. Indexing your site improves your chances of earning higher rankings on the SERPs. You can see how many pages Googlebot crawls every day (for the last 90 days) on the Google Search Console by going to “Settings” and then accessing “Crawl Stats.”
If you have a large number of pages on your site and only a tiny percentage are crawled, this could be a sign that your site and content are too difficult to crawl. It might be worth hiring a professional to figure out why Google’s bots can’t crawl your site. A small investment in fixing the issues could pay off in a significant improvement in traffic to your site.
Tracking conversions – whether it’s appointments made, contacts gained, sales, or any other goal you set – is critical. You may have incredible SEO-related and web-performance stats; however, if you’re not generating business results, these stats are worthless. If Google and other tracking sources show healthy, quality traffic hitting your site and interacting with it, it’s a sign the people visiting it don’t know how to take the actions you want them to take. It’s time to check whether your calls-to-action (CTAs) are clear, visible, and easy to act on. Never let a user wonder what their next move should be – lead the way with clear, engaging CTAs.
Bounce rate reflects the percentage of visitors who exit your website after visiting a single page without clicking any links to view other pages on it. A high bounce rate could signify something is seriously wrong on your site – it might indicate irrelevant content, poor design, or unclear navigation. If a visitor hits a page and jumps off it quickly, they clearly had a bad experience and you must make it a priority to resolve it. Or, a high bounce rate may indicate that they found what they were looking for quickly and left, but this is rarely the case.
Start Tracking the Right SEO Metrics Now
In a world of constant Google algorithm updates, it’s important to stay up-to-date on critical SEO metrics. If you’re not yet tracking the ones explained in this chapter, it’s time to get started. Leverage the free or affordable tools available to you (like Google Analytics) to monitor your numbers. A small investment in time and money could pay off in significantly more, higher-quality traffic hitting your website along with additional business generated by search.
How Google Maintains Its Position as the Dominant Search Engine
Remember Ask Jeeves, Altavista, or Dogpile? We barely do!
How about Bing or Yahoo? They’re not exactly top of mind.
So, how did Google come to destroy or dominate so many other search engine contenders? Was it mere happenstance, or does Google stand apart for a reason?
This chapter explains how Google achieved its top position in search and has maintained it over time. Knowing the thought processes behind the leaders, developers, and bean counters at Google can help you join — or beat — them at their own game.
Google’s Competitive Advantage
Google’s competitive advantage allows it to dominate the global search engine market. The search giant currently controls 90 percent of all international searches, according to Connexity.
To maintain its dominant position, Google has built an infrastructure that guarantees a fast and efficient search engine experience with the best and most meaningful results. It has also made it a key part of its business model to continue improving and making enhancements rather than resting on its number-one search spot. On top of this, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has relieved some of the pressure on the search engine component of the business by branching out in other directions beyond search.
Google’s Speedy Advantage
Let’s start by looking at the average speed of a Google search. Today, it typically takes 0.06 to 0.12 seconds to complete one. Google was able to accomplish this because, early on, its leaders decided to invest in building its own infrastructure, including servers, storage systems, bandwidth, and hardware. This now allows Google to deliver the fastest search results on the web.
Most of Google’s competitors didn’t make this investment and lost the speed race to the behemoth.
The cost of tech infrastructure is high. Google spends billions of dollars a year on development and upkeep. However, these investments provided it with a formidable advantage early on that it maintains today.
Google’s speed advantage over competitors kept — and keeps — users coming back. Quick searches were particularly valuable when Google’s results weren’t as on-target as they are today. The results of a search may have been (and may still be) wonky. However, because of the near-instant search time, a user can make another Google search right away, making them less inclined to switch to Bing or another competitor to seek out better answers to questions. It takes more time to move from Google to Bing than submit another Google query and have it serve up a new search engine results page (SERP).
Another competitive advantage Google enjoys by owning its infrastructure is that it can take steps to reduce operating costs. If Google were dependent on suppliers, it wouldn’t have control over its operating expenses. Vendors could raise prices for their services, knowing Google can afford to pay them.
Google’s Information Advantage
Early on, Google’s search logic and results were similar to those of other search engines. However, it leveraged its superior speed to improve its algorithm and recommendations. Google has also used artificial intelligence and other technology to understand the content on the web better, catalog it, and serve it up to the right people. Algorithm upgrades moved Google from being a hit-and-miss search provider to one that generally satisfies user needs and keeps getting better at doing it.
The Google Local Advantage
Most search engines started out by focusing on big national and international searches, connecting users with prominent information sources. For instance, if someone were searching for healthcare information, they’d be connected to a leading national source like The Mayo Clinic.
What Google realized early on — and acted on — is that most business and informational searches are looking for information about local resources. For instance, a searcher in Connecticut may prefer information from Hartford Healthcare, which could ultimately help them with their medical problems, rather than an arguably more prestigious institution halfway across the country.
Over time, Google has improved its local search capabilities, so they’re the equal of — or more powerful than — its national and global ones. Over time, the platform transferred the power to earn top local search positions to local businesses. The introduction of Google My Business (GMB) ( now Google Business Profile (GBP)) allowed local organizations to control a portion of their information flow into the search engine. The addition of this data simply fed the beast that is Google local search, making it more accurate, personalized, relevant, and powerful.
The Google Added-Value Advantage
Google never stops trying to add value for its users, even if some initiatives are more valuable than others. Google Maps and Reviews are game changers that have made people’s lives better. Others, like Google News, haven’t had much of an impact.
What is critical is that Google never settles – it keeps trying things that make its service more invaluable to users. Sometimes they work and become the mapping device resource people use daily to get around. And even when they don’t work out, Google’s apps and tools often provide some value to a particular audience.
Competitive Advantage: Mobile First
Google was ahead of the curve when it came to the prominence of mobile devices. This focus allowed the company to deliver an optimal smart device experience before most websites could. By consistently catering to smartphone users, Google made sure its experience is never far – it stays with the user and works well.
The Ultimate Google Advantage: Monetizing Search
Many people believe that Google’s dominance in search has made it a type of utility. That the platform should be made available for free without advertising is a common school of thought in some circles. The truth is that Alphabet considers Google a service – one that takes a lot of money to operate. Because it was able to achieve dominance relatively fast, it could build a financial model supported by advertising revenue that covers its infrastructure costs and earns it a profit. On top of this, Alphabet has added other revenue streams, offering hardware like smartphones, cloud storage, and access to commercial-free YouTube content that have relieved the financial pressure on Google and contributed to the financial strength of the business.
What You Can Learn From Google’s Competitive Edge
Many people believe Google “lucked” its way into search engine dominance.
The truth: It played the game smarter and better than its competitors.
If you want to play Google’s game, don’t cheat. The giant made it to the top by being better than the rest. If you want to be successful in search, you must follow Google’s model and strive to be the best in what you do, whether it’s creating content, promoting it, or structuring it on your website. Google looks out for cheating. It builds checks in all its systems seeking it out, whether it’s keyword packing, plagiarizing existing content, or something else. And if Google catches you, your site will be penalized (and it can be hard to recover).
Play your best SEO game by the rules and Google will recognize it and reward you with top results on its SERPS. But be patient – Google’s algorithms and tools are constantly evolving, and SEO is a long game. If you pay attention to these changes and adapt along with them, you’ll be on your way to search success.