SEO is a fast-changing topic and can be challenging at times. However, with 67% of the clicks going to the first five websites listed in the Google search results, you know it’s essential to your marketing strategy.
When you build a strong brand, have a beautiful website or operate a small e-commerce store – you need people to find out about it. You need to drive traffic to your website and offer your users a great experience.
So how to develop an SEO strategy to outrank your competitors? You might know that content is king, that links are important or that you should improve your domain authority to get better results. Or you might look really confused right now since you don’t know what this all means. Don’t worry, we’ll walk you through everything is this complete guide to SEO.
What is SEO
SEO stands for “Search Engine Optimization”. Hubspot defines this process as
At its core, SEO focuses on nothing else but expanding a company’s visibility in the organic search results. It helps businesses rank more pages higher in SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages.) And in turn, drive more visitors to the site, increasing chances for more conversions.
Let’s dive into this a bit more. We’ll start with a really simple example: let’s say you’re looking to buy cheap pet food. You will enter this search term on Google, and Google will show you a list of websites that it thinks are relevant for your query. If you have ever Googled anything, you will also know that you will probably click on the first, second or third result – or maybe even scroll down a little bit – but be honest, who has ever looked at the third page of the search results?
The way that Google defines which pages show up on what position on the Search Engine Result Page is called rankings. This is why we say your website can achieve better rankings – or a higher position – if your pages are optimised well.
If your pages show up more prominent and in better positions, we speak about higher visibility. Ultimately, you want your domain to have higher visibility, so your pages will be shown at relevant search enquiries made on different search engines, such as Google.
The way Google (or other search engines) ranks the pages is defined by a series of complex algorithms. Even though nobody knows the exact formula of how to get your page to the first place, there are a lot of common practices you should follow in order to achieve better search rankings.
We know it all sounds very vague up until here. But let’s summarise quickly:
- People use Google to find certain information or products
- 67% of the clicks go to the first five results
- In order for your website to show up in these first results, you will need better visibility
- You can create this visibility by the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) of your website
SEO is a powerful process. It might be challenging and frustrating at times, but an SEO strategy is an important tool to make your business grow. But before we tell you all the tips and tricks, we need to explain a couple of terms that will help us.
White hat vs. black hat
Like we already pointed out, there is no ‘secret formula’ for getting better search results. But there are some things you can do to improve your rankings. All these practices are in place with the user in mind. Google wants its users to find the best results to their search query, without having to click back to the search results and scroll down.
When websites started to realise the importance of SEO, they started to implement these best practices to achieve better results in a short time. As a result, a lot of pages were ‘misusing’ these best practices, to get better rankings. This process is called black-hat-SEO and focuses on aggressive SEO tactics, with only the search engine in mind rather than the user. Here’s an example to make it more concrete.
An important principle of SEO is keyword optimization. The search engine will crawl to your web pages and see what words are present on that page. If we use our cheap-pet-food-example again, we will notice that only landing pages will show up if it contains the words pet food and cheap (or a synonym, since Google has gotten a lot smarter these years). So the search engines look at the web page and define by the keywords if it’s relevant to show up in the SERPs or not.
When people realised this, they would try to trick Google by ensuring this keyword would appear often on that page. This would happen to such an extent, that the experience for the user would suffer since there would be unnecessary content that focuses on the repetition of the keyword. Or even worse, they would add the keyword invisible – with the same font as background colour – so the page would seem more relevant to Google.
This process is called ‘keyword stuffing’ and is a good example of black-hat-SEO. But with the search engines getting a lot more intelligent, they found ways to punish websites that use any of these techniques. The web experience should be entirely focused on the user and not on the Google-bots. This is called white-hat-SEO, and it is those techniques that we will be discussing from here on.
SEO vs SEA
So we know what SEO stands for (Search Engine Optimisation) and you know more or less what it entails. But you might have seen the term SEA somewhere too. Both are related, by they refer to different topics.
SEA stands for Search Engine Advertising and is sometimes also referred to as Pay-Per-Click (PPC). It is the process of advertising on Google or other search engines. This means you can buy ads that will show up in the search results.
If you look at the SERPS on Google, you will notice that the first few results have a little sign that says ‘Ad’. This means these positions are bought and the websites paid to show up there. The results that you will see underneath the ads are called organic search results, and those positions are achieved by SEO.
When we’re dealing with the search engine giant Google, we speak of Google Ads. There are different types of ads, such as Search ads (that show up in the search results), Display ads (that show up as banners on other websites) or YouTube ads (that show up on the partner site of Google). All these ads can help you achieve different objectives in your marketing campaign, and they all have different benefits.
Spending money on SEA is a great way to get your company more traffic and conversion. But if you only get traffic via paid ads, it might get really expensive very soon. That’s why you should focus on your organic rankings too.
What does an SEO agency do
SEO can be a complex and time-consuming process. We already pointed out how important it is, but unfortunately, it’s not just a set-it-up-once-and-it-will-work-kind-a-deal. Google’s algorithms keep changing and so should your SEO.
We know most companies are busy doing other things. They don’t have the time to write new content, build backlinks or keep track of their rankings. They have to focus on their stock inventory, turnover figures, employee management etc. That’s where an SEO agency comes in handy.
SEO agencies are experts in getting you better rankings. They have used every trick in the book, and besides, they read every article and follow every Google update closely. They know what works and what won’t and they know exactly how to achieve results.
An SEO agency usually employs experts in multiple areas. For example, they will have a web developer that will look at your coding, a web designer that will look at your user interface and a copywriter that will optimise your content.
In short, an SEO agency can take all the annoying work out of your hands, and help you grow fast. They will implement a strategy that guarantees results. So if you are too busy to focus on a good SEO strategy, you might want to find the right SEO agency to improve your organic rankings.
Creating an SEO strategy
Like any other part of your marketing mix, SEO should be done with a clear strategy in mind. It doesn’t make much sense to just start optimising small parts of your website, without keeping an eye on your overall strategy. So before we dive into all the technicalities, we need to set a few things straight.
Defining your target audience
We already mentioned that SEO focuses on user experience. That’s why we are trying to optimise our pages in order to offer users the best results. We also talked about keywords, since we want our page to show up when people are looking for certain information or products. This is what we call the search intent. The ultimate goal would be to have your website show up in results that match most with the user’s search intent, in order to get more traffic to your pages, to offer the best user experience and therefore drive most conversions.
Since it’s all about attracting and engaging our audience, the first step in your strategy would be figuring out who your audience is. Just like in your social media strategy or your advertisement strategy, you first need to gather as much info about your target audience as possible. This includes geographic information, demographics, interests, digital behaviour etc. The more we know about the group we want to reach, to better we can ensure the right strategy to reach them.
In order to get a better overview of our audience, we can build buyer’s personas. A buyer persona is a representation of your ideal or standard customer and includes all types of information on that person that will be relevant for your strategy. The personas can be created with the information you gather from market research and surveys and will serve as a guideline during the creation and implementation of your SEO strategy.
Knowing your customers is the first important step. But you need to know the competition as well. You can tick all the boxes when it comes to SEO, but if your competition is strong, you will be facing challenges. This means that if you want to rank for a highly competitive keyword, it might take you years to come close to the first results with high domain authority and multiple links.
Let’s look at our pet food-example again. We want our pet food to show up when our potential customers are looking for pet food. So we would be optimising our landing page for the keyword ‘pet food’. But if you Google for pet food, you’ll see that some of the first results are well-established e-commerce shops with high domain authority and strong visibility. They key is to focus on long-tail-keywords, which are more descriptive and detailed keywords that usually contain 4 keywords or more. If we use ‘cheap vegetarian pet food’, we might only target a part of the people looking for pet food but it will be far less competitive. Another advantage is that our audience will be more targeted since we’ll only be relevant for people that are actually searching for vegetarian pet food and not all people that are looking to buy pet food in general.
We’ll focus more on keywords and long-term keywords in the next chapter, but there is one last thing we want to point out when it comes to SEO. Whenever you want your website to rank well for a certain topic, it’s important that you have a look at the websites that are currently in the first place. There is a reason that they got those good results in the SERPs and we need to figure out why Google loves them. Make sure you know who the strong competitors are, so you can always refer back to them when it comes to keyword research, linkbuilding or content creation.
Setting time and limit
SEO is a time-consuming project, but you don’t want it to take over all your available time. Since it changes fast and there’s always new content to produce, you might want to set yourself some limitations.
Just like every marketing strategy, your SEO strategy needs some goals and timeframes. Pick your priorities and make sure you optimise your website and content within a reasonable timeframe. Don’t expect results to happen overnight – SEO can often take months (or years) to give you a clear return.
There are two different types of SEO, on-page SEO and off-page SEO. On-page SEO refers to all SEO that is done on your website itself. It’s the optimisation of content and the structure that will help to get better rankings. Off-page SEO refers to everything that is done outside your pages to get more traffic to your website. This includes building a page authority and creating links for examples. We’ll start with on-page SEO.
We mentioned ‘keywords‘ a few times. Keyword optimisation used to be the most important principle of SEO. The SERPs were ordered based on how frequent a keyword would appear on your landing pages, and what position it would have. For example, you needed your keyword to appear in the title, heading, beginning of the paragraph etc. Not too often, since keyword stuffing is another bad practice Google can punish you for.
These days, keyword optimisation doesn’t carry the same weight anymore. The search engines got a lot smarter, which means they have a lot more ways of figuring out if a page is relevant than just looking at the presence of a certain keyword. Instead, they don’t just look at the keyword, but also the context, the words that appear around that keyword, and how natural the copy is. Since your website copy remains important, your SEO content should always start with in-depth keyword research.
Keyword research doesn’t always help you understand what words to include on your landing pages, it gives you a lot of insights when it comes to your content creation or your information architecture too. Also, for e-commerce stores, the money-phrases (or keywords that are linked with a high level of sales, like cheap tickets) are still important.
When we start with keyword research, we will probably begin with some keywords that we already have in mind. These are the keywords that explain your product or brand best, and those are the ones you want to rank for.
Once we have these ideas, we need to expand the list. This means we need to find related keywords, synonyms and other terms that could be grouped together. There are a lot of tools for keyword research, such as the Google Keyword Planner or SEM Rush, but even the Google related searches and Wikipedia could help you to come up with closely related keywords.
But we’re not just focusing on keywords that are almost the same. We need new ideas and topics to write about, so we need to discover all related terms as well – the niche topics. This is often a bit more challenging, but by using tools as AnswerThePublic, Buzzsumo or search suggestions in Google, you’ll get a couple of ideas.
Once you compiled a list of all keywords that could be relevant for your brand, it’s time to start organising this list. We want to group similar keywords into topics, that we can then break down into subtopics. Having the keywords grouped in an orderly way will help coming up with a structure for your websites and landing pages. This is called content mapping.
Once we have the topics clear, we can either decide on what landing page to include these keywords, or we can create an entirely new page. By assigning the keywords to a dedicated landing page you can focus strongly on a certain keyword group for every page. This gives you the change to include all keywords in that group, but also to come up with the right title tags and alt tags, and relevant blog posts that could be linked to.
We already mentioned the strong competition for some shorter and popular keywords. A great tactic to bypass this is to focus on long-tail keywords. Statista even claims that 50% of your keyword efforts should be focusing on long-tail keywords. But what does this mean?
Long-tail keywords are longer and more specific, but aren’t searched for as often as head terms (or short keywords) and will therefore also offer you less traffic. However, since these keywords are more specific they reach people further in the buying cycle. Somebody looking for a green outside table knows more or less what he or she wants and is more inclined to buy it. This means that long-tail keywords will often result in more conversions.
Because these keywords will give you the opportunity to rank for search terms that are less competitive, you will be able to slowly gain some traffic and build up your website’s visibility in the results.
Don’t waste your time with extensive keyword research. We can conduct keyword research and create a content map for you – so you can just focus on the content.
Once we’ve compiled a list of all the keywords that are relevant to our brand, it’s time to start creating valuable content. Content is one of the most important aspects of SEO strategy (and probably also the most time-consuming) and anyone who has ever been in touch with SEO will have heard of the phrase ‘content is king’.
Why is content so important? Because Google tries its best to show you the exact content that you’re looking for. You are searching for a how-to-guide to make your own garden shed? Then Google will show you the page that has the best content, that exactly matches with your search intent. This content can be a lengthy guide or an interesting video (multimedia are actually highly valued by Google). That way, Google can offer the best user experience.
It’s the content that offers users a solution to what they were looking for, but it’s also the content that helps Google determine where to show your website in the search result. That’s why your content should be of great quality, relevant (think of our keyword research), fresh and comprehensive.
A great way to provide your customers with fresh and relevant content is to maintain a blog on your website. A blog gives you the option to include keywords that might not fit onto your main landing pages, to expand on certain topics or to give your customers certain information that might be valuable.
The more content you can offer to your audience, the more relevant your website will be for Google. It will show that you’re an authority on the topic since you include a lot of related content (and thus keywords) and that you have some valuable information to share with them. Blogs are also a perfect piece of content to include long-tail keywords, that will direct more traffic to your website.
Let’s say you have an accountant business. You might have a website with your services listed and offer an overview of your prices. These pages will be great to include keywords such as ‘best accountant in Melbourne’ or ‘account services for small businesses’. Your keyword research however also shows that your customers are looking for ‘ways to keep track of their spendings’ or ‘best programs for taxes’. Since these topics are closely related to what you do, you might want to consider writing a blog about it.
- Read more about content strategies for accountants
These blog posts will show your expertise on the topic, so you can position yourself as a thought-leader. They will show up in the search results, driving new traffic to your website. And with the right call-to-actions (CTA) in place in every blog posts, they will also get you more conversions.
Now we’ve covered the most important part of your SEO strategy, it’s time to look at the more technical stuff. As you know, it’s the Google bots that crawl your website, read your content and see if it’s relevant enough to show up for certain search terms. But it’s not just the content that counts here.
This part of SEO might get a bit more challenging since some of it requires a certain knowledge of HTML or web development. An SEO agency might be able to help you out with this, or you can even find some WordPress plugins that can help you with the basics.
HTML and tags
If we want to optimise our page for a certain keyword, we have to do this in every way. This means we don’t only want to show our keyword in the content, but also in the behind-the-scenes stuff. Here is a short overview of the tags you should be considering:
- Title: the title of your page or blog posts is obviously very important since it tells what the page is all about. That’s why it goes without saying that your keyword should be included in there, and the rule of thumb is that the closer to the start of the title, the more value it has.
- Heading-tags: your heading tags carry more weight too, so it’s better to include your keywords in your headings too. The h1 has more importance, but try to include relevant keywords or long-tail keywords in your h3, h4 tags too.
- Image tags: Google won’t be able to see your images, so instead it reads the alt-tag. That’s why this tag should describe in detail what there is portrayed on your images, and include at least one keyword.
- Meta-tag & meta-description: even though Google doesn’t use the meta-tag anymore to define whether a page is relevant or not, you should still optimise your meta-tags for your click-through-rates. Your meta-description will show up in the SERPs as a little blur, so if this is well-written it might convince people to click on your website instead of the competitor.
The URL is also important when optimising your site for the search engines. This means you should ideally include your keyword in it, so the topic is clear when people see the URL in the search results. For example, if you would see:
you don’t’ have to think long about which one to click on. Furthermore, your URL structure should also be search-engine-friendly which means it should look something like this:
Nothing is more annoying than clicking on a website in the search results and then having to wait 10 seconds before the page actually loads. Be honest, how many of you would go back and click on another website?
Since the search engines are all about the user experience, you can imagine that a slow loading site doesn’t go well. Google doesn’t want you to have to go back to the search results and tries to avoid this in every way. That’s why a slow loading time will give you worse rankings in the search results.
Another important part of on-page SEO is the site architecture. Having a good website architecture will offer your users a better experience, which means the pages will load faster and it’s easier to navigate around.
Not only the users will benefit from a clear site architecture. The Google bots, that crawl the internet, jump from one link to the other. If these bots can index your website better, the chances are higher you will show up on better positions in the SERPs.
The search engines will get a better understanding of your website if the internal structures are clear and if there are enough links connecting the pages in logical ways. Especially when they are dealing with big websites such as complex e-commerce stores, your site architecture should be kept logical.
We just mentioned that the Google-bots crawl through the internet to index all the websites by following links. That also means that your page should contain enough internal links to guide them in the right way. Internal links make it easier for bots to navigate through your content, but will also help to spread the link equity to your pages.
Simply put, if you mention a topic, product or idea that you have a page or blog posts for, link to it. They help you to build up certain topics and show related content to the users and Google bots. When you are inserting a link, make sure to stay away from unnatural anchor texts such as ‘click here’. Try to focus on your keyword in the most natural way possible.
In the end, it’s all about the user experience. That’s why your website should have a clear architecture, valuable content, fast loading speeds, easy check-out procedures etc. User experience is one of the most important factors for the search engines, but guess what – for your users too!
That’s why there are a few things you can do in your SEO strategy that will focus on the user entirely:
- Use the right language. Stay away from industry jargon and difficult terms, since your customers might not be googling these.
- Write engaging titles & meta descriptions. Your rankings might be up to the Google algorithms, the fact if you get the click or not is up to you!
- Install easy navigation and interaction elements. Once your users are on your site, you want to keep them there. Make sure they find their way around so they don’t leave in order to find the info somewhere else.
- Create easy forms & check-out processes. Lengthy forms are one of the most important reasons why customers abandon their conversion. Make sure to keep your customers with you until the end.
- Ensure clean coding. Make sure your code is clean and doesn’t contain any clutter or old parts so it’s easier for the Google bots to crawl to.
- Focus on user-centric web design. Make sure your design is in function of your user. Think about easy big buttons, clear logo or site identity and sharp product photos or detailed descriptions.
- Have a mobile-friendly website. Since most users will be on their phone when googling, you want your website to be responsive and functioning well on any device.
You probably notice that SEO is about so much more than just optimising a couple of tags on your website. SEO is the result of a good copywriter that focuses on keywords, a web developer that writes clean code and a web designer that puts the user central, working together. That’s why working with a full-service agency can give your SEO a boost in all its aspects.
Now we’ve fully optimised our website, it’s time to clean up all the roads leading to it. An optimised, functional and user-friendly website is a good start, but we have to ensure that people find their way to it as well.
Off-page SEO is all about creating trust and authority for your website. It doesn’t happen on your pages itself but usually takes place away from your website. The goal is to create a strong brand, that is trusted by Google and therefore will be pushed higher in the rankings when people are searching.
A first way to build up this authority is by links. The theory behind it is very simple: if there are a lot of websites referring to your page, then it must be valuable. It’s comparable with any word-of-mouth advertising. If people are talking about it, it must be important.
This links that lead to your website are called backlinks and are often considered as the most important factor of your off-page SEO strategy. Backlinks are incredibly important and not perse the links itself but the amount, the quality and relevancy play a factor in it too.
So what does this mean? Links are important for your website’s ranking, but there’s no point in collecting a huge amount of links from all sorts of different websites. Google is smart, (have we mentioned this before?) and will therefore not see all links equally. Links that you collected from random websites without any relevant, or sketchy domains that Google doesn’t really trust, won’t gain you any authority but will often even punish you and push you down in the rankings.
So we want to collect backlinks that come from trustworthy domains and that are relevant to your website. The process of doing this is called linkbuilding or linkearning and there are a couple of things you should take notice of.
- The number of links: the more links, the better! Having links from different domains rather than just one domain is a plus as well.
- The quality of the domain: the website that is pointing to you should have a high authority as well. If their page rank is higher, yours will be too.
- The context of the links: links should appear in a context that is as natural as possible. Backlinks that are inserted in a relevant text or piece of content will have more value than in a sidebar
- Relevancy: if the topic of your website is related to the content that is on the page linking to you, you’re link will be valued better
- The diversity of links: the links should all be in different contexts or different types of pages. If all the links appear in the same way, it will look less natural
- Anchor text: the words that are linking to your website are important too and should clearly indicate what your website is about
As you can tell, all these rules are in place to avoid that your backlinks look spammy. Remember those old shady websites that only consisted out of links? These were entirely made for linkbuilding purposes and is exactly what Google tries to avoid.
So how can you gain these quality backlinks? There a few ways to earn your links and it always involves creating content that is worth sharing. Examples include infographics, guest blogging or videos. The idea behind is that you offer the website something they actually want to publish and you get a new link in return!
You want the search engines to trust your website. Having a large number of quality backlinks is without any doubt an incredibly important factor. There are however a few other things you can’t look over.
Domain authority is a scoring system that was created by Moz, where websites get a score between 1-100 that will predict how well they will rank in the SERPs. The score is based on a few factors, including the number of links pointing to the domain. In addition to the domain authority, there is also a page authority that refers to the authority of the separate pages.
Another important way to ensure a trustworthy website is by keeping your bounce rate low. The bounce rate refers to the number of people that leave your website immediately. Of course, this is a factor for Google to consider since it shows that your website wasn’t relevant enough, which means you might get a lower position in the SERPs for that search term. Keeping a healthy bounce rate is key for better rankings.
One factor of SEO that is getting increasingly more important every year is branding. Google prefers strong and established brands over small brands and won’t be afraid to reflect that in the search results. That’s why your SEO strategy shouldn’t just focus on content creation and linkbuilding but should include a brand strategy too.
It’s not only Google that prefers strong brands, but it’s the users too. If you search something on Google, chances are high that you will click on one of the results that sounds familiar to you – even if this is the second or third result on the page.
So in order to achieve better rankings, you should create strong brand awareness. Creating a consistent brand is key and this should be promoted across all your marketing channels.
Keeping your brand and your core message consistent across all channels is important when you’re doing omnichannel marketing. As a marketer, you should focus on more than just one marketing channel. You should try to reach your audience on different channels, and all these channels should interact.
The use of multiple marketing channels is however not only vital for a good marketing strategy, but it’s also key for your SEO. It might not be the most important factor of your SEO strategy, but you would be surprised by the little boost your social media marketing and email marketing can give your ranking.
Within email marketing, for example, your emails can give your old content a nice little boost by getting new traffic to the landing page. It can also do wonders for your bounce rate since people that are already engaging with your content will be inclined to stay on the page for longer.
Social Media Marketing
Social media too can affect your SEO rankings. Although it’s not a direct factor that will make you rank number 1, it will have its influence on the search results – be it a bit more complicated. If your content gets shared a lot, it will result in higher visibility which is beneficial for your website. And like we already mentioned before, it will create a stronger brand for you which both Google and the user will prefer!
The importance of mobile search is becoming bigger every year. We all know that most searches these days are done on a mobile device, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Google cares about this too. That’s why having an optimised mobile website will get you better results in the search engine results. Google even rolled out a Mobile-First-Index, which means website optimised for mobile will get better rankings, even on desktop searches.
Mobile search optimisation
In order to optimise your site for mobile search, there are a few things you should take in mind. First of all, you have to think about the content. Just like this is important in your general SEO strategy – you should focus on your mobile content strategy too. This means that all of your content should be crawlable and indexable in mobile.
Secondly, your web design should be mobile-friendly. You want a website that works seamlessly on every device and there are three ways to do this. You can create a responsive design, a mobile website or an adaptive website. Whichever version you prefer, you should always put the user experience in the first place. This means you should include easy navigation, easy buttons, scaled images and a clear website structure.
A lot of web designers or marketers make the mistake of focusing on the desktop version first. But with Google making a big shift to favouring the mobile version before the desktop version, you might want to consider a different approach. A mobile-friendly website and a mobile marketing strategy.
With customers having their phone in their hands at almost all times, they want to find businesses near them if they are searching for information. So for local businesses, it’s key to show up in the local search results. The process of optimising your website for this is referred to as local SEO.
However local SEO works according to the same main principles as general SEO (including keyword and content optimisation), there are a few extra things you can do. Mentioning your name, address and contact details is a good example, but also trying to build more local links or mentions. Furthermore, there are reviews and Google My Business that can’t be missed in your local marketing strategy.