SEO Basics: A Beginner’s Guide

Rosie Allabarton, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

With the soaring demand for SEO specialists in almost every industry, increasing numbers of career-changers are considering retraining and launching careers in this influential field. And it makes sense: with high SEO associate salaries, a wide variety of tasks, and a clear impact on business success, the rewards of a career in SEO are—for individuals with the right skills—significant and wide-ranging. 

For those of you at the start of your SEO journey, you’ve chosen a great time to learn about  SEO basics. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but, luckily for you, resources like this one can help you onboard the fundamentals you’ll need to proceed in the industry. 

Here’s a clickable list of all the points we’ll be covering in this post, so you can jump straight to the section that interests you the most. 

  1. What is SEO? Why is it important?
  2. SEO basics: commonly-used terms
  3. SEO basics: how do search engines work?
  4. SEO basics: keyword research best practices
  5. SEO basics: on-page optimization
  6. SEO basics: information architecture
  7. Common SEO issues and how to resolve them
  8. Key takeaways

Are you ready to learn about SEO basics? Then let’s begin! 

1. What is SEO? Why is it important?

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the process of adjusting and improving a website’s content, in order for it to be more easily found via search engines. The more relevant a search engine algorithm deems a website to be on a specific search term or topic, the higher that page ranks on their search engine results pages. When this is the case, users searching that search term see that website, and are therefore more likely to visit it. 

SEO is important because search engines are the most common way for users to find information, products or services they need. If a website can rank highly on search engine results pages for relevant search terms, they are one of the first links users interested in their product will see. When this happens, traffic to the site increases, as does the likelihood of sales—as those arriving to the site are already interested in what they do.  

2. SEO basics: commonly-used SEO terms

Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly-used words and phrases in SEO that you’ll need to have a good understanding of when pursuing this career. 

Black hat 

Black hat marketing is when a marketer uses unethical methods to manipulate search engine algorithms in order to rank in search engine results pages for keywords that are generally unrelated to the content of the website. 

Methods used in black hat marketing include: 

  • Invisible text: Invisible or hidden text is when text on a website is unreadable to the viewer unless it’s highlighted. This is done by writing the text in the same color as the background.
  • Doorway pages: A doorway page is when a page is created with very poor content but containing lots of industry keywords in order to “trick” search engines into thinking the pages contain worthwhile, relevant content.
  • Keyword stuffing: Keyword stuffing is when a website page is crammed full of keywords to the point where the content is no longer coherent. The idea behind it is to make the search engine think the content is relevant to searchers of that keyword but, in practice, this makes for an unhelpful and unenjoyable user experience.
  • Unrelated keywords: Unrelated keywords is a black hat marketing trick whereby keywords are scattered throughout a piece of content in which they don’t belong to, in order to attract searchers of that keyword to the page.

Crawling

Crawling in SEO is when a search engine (like Google or Bing) sends a bot, called a crawler or a spider, to the page of a website in order to “read” the contents of the page. Search engines do this in order to find new or updated pages to add to their results pages. 

Indexing

Once a search engine crawler bot has found a page, the search engine analyzes the content of that page to better understand what the page is about. This is called indexing. 

Ranking

A website’s position on the search engine results page is referred to as its ranking. The higher up on the search engine results page a website is, the better its ranking is considered. 

SERP

SERP is an acronym for Search Engine Results Pages. These are the pages a user sees after entering a search term or query into a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing. 

Traffic

Traffic is the term used to describe visitors to a website or webpage. In SEO, traffic commonly refers to the visitors who find and then visit a website after it appears on a search engine results page in response to a specific search term. 

White hat

Unlike black hat SEO, white hat SEO is when SEO strategies are implemented by a marketer which work within the rules and expectations of search engines and users without relying on tricks or other dubious methods to undermine or “cheat” a search engine’s algorithm. 

Gray hat 

Gray hat (sometimes spelled “grey hat”) SEO is a technique which combines elements of both white and black hat SEO. Using expired domain names, buying or trading links, duplicating or spinning content, paying for positive reviews, and using private blog networks are all techniques used by gray hat marketers. With such dubious practices at play, gray hat SEO is essentially black hat SEO that is trying to appear as white hat SEO. 

Keywords 

A keyword is a word, phrase, topic, or idea within the website copy that defines the subject matter of your content. Within SEO, these specifically refer to words or phrases that users type into search engines in order to find a specific type of website (“search queries”), which are then used within copy on a website or blog to enable that content to be found by these users, as well as by search engines.

3. SEO basics: how do search engines work?

Learning how search engines work will be important if you want to work in SEO even once you’re established in your career. With algorithms and user search behavior changing all the time, staying educated on trends and best practices will be a key requirement to staying relevant in the field.

What is crawling?

As we’ve seen, crawling is when a search engine sends a bot (called a crawler or a spider) to the page of a website in order to “read” the contents of the page and ascertain what that page is all about. The bot is also looking for new or updated pages to add to SERPs (search engine results pages). Put simply, when your site is being crawled, this means that Google or another search engine is actively looking at its pages. 

Although crawling is necessary for a search engine to know your page exists, it is not the same as having your site indexed. Crawling is just the first part of the process that’s needed in order for a site to appear in SERPs. If Google recognizes that a page is either completely new or is offering something of value to the internet as a whole, it may then be scheduled to be indexed. 

What is indexing? 

When a website appears on a SERP, that means it has been indexed by the search engine. This happens once a bot has crawled a website and, having analyzed the contents of its pages, deemed it to be offering something of value to internet users. 

When the search engine has decided that a page is worthy of being found, it then decides how that page should be found by users. This involves deciding which keywords are associated with the page, and the ranking of that page in each keyword search.

What is ranking? 

Ranking refers to the position a page on a website is given on a search engine results page. When users type a query into the search bar, results appear on SERPs in a particular order. Where a page appears on this list of results is its ranking. How search engines algorithms decide on a website’s ranking in search engine results pages is not public knowledge. However, what is known is that companies need to ensure their sites appeal to both human searchers and bots if they are to get a good ranking on SERPs. 

Elements which we know to affect a webpage’s ranking include: 

  • Website loading time
  • Usability of site
  • Quality of content
  • Backlinks
  • Fulfilling the search intent
  • Age of the website
  • Technical SEO (use of headers, relevant keyword placement, meta descriptions, and so on) 

4. SEO basics: keyword research best practices 

Keywords, words or phrases (which both define the subject matter of a piece of content and reflect user search queries) hold a lot of weight in SEO because they are the link between users and a site and its content. SEO specialists spend a lot of time researching the search queries users input into search engines in order to get a better understanding of the words or phrases (keywords) they need to include in their site’s content. 

Let’s take a look at some of the proven methods and best practices for ensuring results with keyword placement. 

Decide on your goals 

When beginning a marketing campaign of any kind, the number one thing you need to know is what the goal of the campaign is. Is your goal to:

  • Increase traffic to the site? 
  • Build brand awareness? 
  • Make sales? 
  • Position your company as an authority in the field? 

Once the business goal of the campaign has been established, it’s important that the keywords you choose help you to reach that goal. 

Identify your categories 

Once you’ve got an idea of what you’d like to achieve with your keywords, create a list of categories or topics related to your business. For example, if the purpose of your website is to advertise a tuition service for students, you’ll want to do keyword research around topics such as teaching, students, learning, and tuition. 

Perform bulk keyword research 

Once you’ve identified relevant terms, you’ll be in a good position to perform bulk keyword research. This involves collecting as many keywords as you can, including synonyms of words and variations of phrases. There are plenty of tools out there to help you with this, such as Semrush, Google Keyword Planner, Wordtracker Scout, and KWFinder. Using these tools, you’ll be able to generate a list of keywords, and identify which to use (based on low competition and large number of search queries). 

Include longtail keywords 

In addition to single keywords you’d like to target, it’s important not to overlook longtail keywords, which are typically a phrase or a question frequently typed into search engines. Longtail keywords are easier to rank for as they are more specific. They also enable businesses to create high-quality content which answers specific user queries. For example, a tutor’s website could include a page or blog post called “How much should parents pay for tutoring?” or “What are the benefits of tutoring?”. Users interested in paying for tutoring services will likely type these longtail keywords into search engines while conducting research.

Research your competitors 

You’ll want to know which keywords and pages your competitors are ranking for in order to:

  • Get ideas for topics to cover in blog posts, on social media, or on landing pages (and cover them in more detail!)
  • Find keywords you should also be trying to rank for
  • Identify which keywords they’re not trying to target, so that you can target them yourself

Some useful SEO keyword tools for finding out which keywords your competitors are using include:

Take advantage of ‘People also ask’ on Google!

The ‘People also ask’ box on Google search engine results pages is a very useful feature for SEO specialists, as it answers questions which are related to the user’s original search query. These questions provide ideas for relevant content you can produce such as blog posts, videos, or landing pages, and this section provides another opportunity for you to get your pages ranked. 

A digital marketer learning some SEO basics

5. SEO basics: on-page optimization

On-page optimization is primarily concerned with how on-page elements can be tweaked and improved in order for Google’s bots to better find, identify, and categorize your website and its pages. Let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals you should keep in mind when optimizing your on-site content. 

Get your title tags right 

Title tags are what appear on search engine results pages for your website. On Google, these are the blue linked titles above a short snippet of text. Search engines are able to identify what your webpage is about from its title tags, and these should be unique for every page of your site. 

Best practices for title tags: 

  • Format your title tag with your primary keyword first, your secondary keyword second, and then the name of your business
  • Try not to use the same title tag more than once
  • Don’t exceed 55 characters 
  • Use hyphens between phrases 
  • Avoid punctuation

Don’t forget meta descriptions 

A meta description gives the user an idea of the content that exists on a webpage before they’ve clicked on a link to go there. It appears as a bit of text below the link to the page on a search engine results page, providing a brief summary of the page and often includes keywords related to the user’s search query. 

Best practices for meta descriptions: 

  • Meta descriptions should be engaging to the reader and compel them to click through to the webpage
  • Do not exceed 160 characters, including spaces
  • Try to make your meta descriptions unique for each page you’re trying to rank for
  • Avoid quotes, punctuation, and symbols or special characters

Incorporate keywords into great content 

You’ve done your keyword research—now it’s time to put your research into action. This means creating high-quality content that includes your chosen keyword phrases. This could be in the form of blog posts, SEO landing pages, FAQs, or any other relevant page that includes text your users are going to read. 

Best practices for content:

  • Include keywords and their synonyms in your content in a natural way
  • Do not use duplicate content on your own site (or copy content from other sites)
  • Produce content that is relevant to the keyword and theme
  • Provide significant value to the reader with your content

Pay attention to headers and subheads 

Header tags improve the readability of web pages for both readers and search engine bots.  

Best practices for headers and subheads:

  • Format your subheads correctly: Use a H1 tag for the title, then H2 for following sections. (H1 tags go from H1-H6, leaving you options for further header tagging for less significant text blocks, if needed). 
  • Include keywords and their synonyms in the title and subheads, with the most important keywords reserved for the title 

Use anchor text for internal links  

Anchor text is the name for the words hyperlinks display when linking to another website, page, or document. Basic HTML will format anchor text as underlined and blue, turning a deep purple once clicked on (though most websites will change the formatting to a style uniform to the rest of the website). Anchor text is important in SEO because it is essentially a description of where you’re sending the user to. This helps search engines to know the relevancy of the page you’re linking to, as well as the relevancy of it on the page you’re linking from. 

Best practices for internal links:

  • Include links in the text to both your own webpages and external pages which are relevant to the content
  • Give your links descriptive titles, ideally containing some of your targeted keywords, such as ‘this article on SEO Best Practices’, rather than ‘here’, or ‘this article’

6. SEO basics: information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is concerned with how your site is organized, and the location of elements and text on each webpage. One of the main goals of information architecture is to enable users to easily and intuitively navigate their way through a webpage and website, and find what they came to the site in search of. A goal of SEO is also findability, both within the website and from outside of it. 

Here are some good ground rules for getting your information architecture to complement your SEO goals: 

Decide on a goal for the site

Once you know the goal of your site, you should build your pages around it. For example, if you’d like users to sign up to a course, you should create content that promotes and encourages that, and ensures the route to signing up is obstacle-free and easy to find. Take the time to consider your users’ needs, wants, and behavior when deciding on the goal for your IA, and don’t forget to define at the start how you will measure success.

Study the user journey

Understanding the user’s journey through your site is the key to knowing which changes to make to the information architecture to enable them to better reach their goals. You can find information about how your users are currently navigating web pages by studying the analytics of your site. You’ll learn where your users are coming from, where they are going, and which links they are clicking on. You can then create more intuitive pathways, map your content to match the user journey, and enable users to meet their goals in fewer steps.

Identify the purpose of each page

Each page of your site should have a clear and specific purpose, with no two pages having the same goal. Most sites have three types of pages: those to help users find what they’re looking for (navigation pages), those which provide valuable content (consumption pages), and those which assist users in taking an action (interaction pages). Do an audit of your website’s pages and tag each with one of these labels. You should then optimize the content on that page to be focussed around its identified purpose. 

Don’t forget labeling 

Working with a UX writer will ensure that your site’s navigation is signposted with clear and consistent language and labeling. Such an expert will ensure that the terminology used on a site is jargon-free, quick and easy to understand, and unambiguous or confusing. While your users should know exactly what actions are available to them at a glance, they’re not the only ones to benefit: search engines will also be able to better index your pages if you use clear and concise labeling. 

Consider the three-click rule 

The three-click rule is when a website user is able to reach any page of a website in no more than three clicks of their mouse. It’s worth considering implementing this rule when designing the information architecture of your site, because search engines consider pages which are the fewest clicks away from the home page to be the most important. In fact, if a page is too many clicks away from the home page, a crawler may not find it at all. From the user’s perspective, it significantly simplifies their journey through a site, enabling them to find what they’re looking for quickly, without getting lost. 

7. Common SEO issues and how to resolve them

Despite the vast array of tools out there designed to help SEO experts, there are still a number of common technical issues and avoidable mistakes which arise when optimizing web pages for search engines. We’ve put together a short list of some of the most likely issues you’ll face when you start out in SEO, and provided some actionable steps you can take to prevent them from occurring, or fix them when they do.  

Problem: Duplicate content

The problem with duplicate content is that search engines are forced to choose between two identical pieces of text and determine which of the pages should (meaningfully) rank in the search engine results pages. What can often happen is that if this occurs within your own website, both pages will struggle to rank. In addition, from a user’s perspective, duplicate content provides almost no value.  

Solution: 

As a rule of thumb, never knowingly duplicate content within your own website, and never copy content from another website. When duplicate content is caused by a technical error, you can resolve this by setting up a 301 redirect from the page which has the duplicate content to the original page. Check out Google’s advice on setting up redirects

Problem: Unclear navigation 

Poor navigation impacts SEO because it makes a website more difficult for search engine bots to crawl. If there are too many links, options, or menus, crawlers struggle to identify and decipher the content. In SEO, your job is to make your site as easy as possible for search engine crawlers to navigate the site, understand its content, and see how each page relates to the other pages. Finally, poor navigation doesn’t just affect SEO, it also affects conversions, usability, and traffic, too. 

Solution: 

Improving the information architecture of a website by following the best practices we outlined in the previous section is a proven method for improving your site’s navigation. 

Problem: Slow loading pages 

Page loading times are a critical ranking factor for search engines. For this reason, if your website is slow to load, it’s likely to be given poor visibility in search engine results pages, which will directly impact how much organic traffic it will receive. In addition, slow loading pages negatively affect the user experience and conversion rate. 

Solution:

Slow loading web pages can have a number of root causes, from unoptimized images to too many ads. Take a look at these articles addressing causes of and solutions to slow loading pages: 

Problem: Broken links 

User experience (UX) is a ranking factor for search engines. So while broken links don’t directly impact SEO, they indirectly affect it because when a crawler finds a broken link, it’s aware that this is a poor experience for the user of that site. When a crawler thinks a site is providing a bad user experience, it does not get ranked so highly. Broken links also affect other metrics, such as time on site and bounce rate. 

Solution: 

There are many tools available to help website owners uncover and remove broken links from their sites. Some of our favorites include:

8. Key takeaways

We hope you’ve found our SEO basics guide a clear and easy breakdown of some of the key language, best practices, and tools you’ll need to know to start your career journey in the field. 

Some of our key takeaways:

  • Practice some of the techniques we’ve outlined here by creating a blog or website consisting of high-quality articles or pages which solve a problem for users
  • Research your competitors, your categories, and your keywords and get to grips with tools that can help you do that: BuzzSumo, Spyfu, Seed Keywords, WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool
  • Try to rank highly in SERPs using carefully crafted and user-focused content that consists of relevant keywords and follows on-page optimization best practices

Finally, if the thought of a career in SEO excites you, check out our free, 5-day course to continue your learning. You may also want to check out some of our other articles: 

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