The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to SEO with FREE 20-Point Checklist
Welcome to my ultimate beginner’s guide to SEO
Fasten your seatbelts because I’m going to cover all the major points that you need to get started with optimising your website for search engines.
I have also put together a 20-point checklist that you can download for free. Enter your email below and I’ll send it over ready for you to print off and pin up at your desk.
This is a quick jump menu.
If you would like to jump to a specific part of this post, just click below and you’ll be taken right to it (just like magic!).
- Domain Name
- Permalink Structure
- Why You Need a Blog
- Install Yoast SEO Plugin
- Install a Social Sharing Plugin
- Website Speed
- Duplicated Content
- Content Length
- Long-Tail Keywords
- LSI Keywords
- Voice Search
- Writing and Layout
- Title Tags
- Meta Titles and Meta Descriptions
- Image Alt Tags
- Link Building
- Internal Links
- External Links
There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat
Don’t panic, I’m not going to show you how to skin a cat. I don’t even know how to skin a cat (nor would I want to).
I only wanted to point out that there is more than one way to get traffic to your website – there are actually three ways.
One way to obtain traffic is by purchasing it. This is done through various platforms such as Google Adwords, Facebook Ads, Banner Ads and general advertisement networks.
Another way, and the way that we are focusing on today, is via Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), or in other words, making sure your website ticks all the right boxes in order for search engines to find it, index it and reference it in search results.
The third way you can generate traffic to your website is via an email subscription list. I cannot stress enough that you must be building an email list. I’ll save all the reasons why for another blog post, just trust me on this one. (If you would like to join my email list, you’ll find a subscription box at the bottom of this post. Thanks in advance.)
Although this post is primarily focused on generating traffic through SEO, I advise that you should still be investing in the other two methods. They all work together in a beautiful way. But for now, back to SEO.
SEO is Not ‘Free Traffic’
Let me just clarify that there is no such thing as ‘free traffic’.
Implementing SEO strategies and getting to the top of Google takes a huge amount of effort and time – it’s not free.
You cannot buy a domain, craft a website, tick a few boxes and then the next day your sitting at the number 1 spot on Google – it doesn’t work like that.
SEO is a minefield of a subject and it’s not an easy task to master.
It can take a while (sometimes months) to see the changes that you have made to your website reflect in your search rankings and traffic.
And that’s not all.
With SEO, you are completely at the mercy of the search engines. You could be flying high one day and then a small change in Google’s algorithm could have you scraping the gutter the next day.
Sounds painful, doesn’t it?
But all of that aside, SEO is still an important subject.
There are companies investing huge amounts of money into cracking the SEO code, with the main aim of getting their websites to the holy grail: the #1 spot on Google.
The SEO industry is worth $65 billion and it’s still growing!
How Search Engines Work
Let’s take a look at Google.
Google’s main job is to organise the internet and I can’t even bear to think about how many web pages exist.
Notice that I said web pages and not websites…
…that’s because Google doesn’t just help you find a website, it helps you to find the page that you want.
In other words, when you type a query into the search bar, Google then searches and compiles a list of the best web pages for you.
…and Google wants to get it right! It wants to get you the result that you are looking for and the answer to your question.
After all, if it kept giving you wrong answers and useless results, you wouldn’t use it and Google would not be the giant that it is today.
So, how does it do it?
In truth, no one knows the actual algorithm that Google uses, but apparently, there are over 250 factors that Google takes into consideration when ranking your website.
These ranking factors can be broadly separated into two categories.
- What you tell Google about your website
- What your readers tell Google about your website
Let’s look at them both individually.
What You Tell Google About Your Website
Well, first things first, Google needs to know that your website exists, and the best way to do this is to tell them.
Register your website with Google Search Console and submit your sitemap.
(NOTE: Later on in this post we talk about Installing Yoast SEO plugin. Once installed, this plugin will help you generate your sitemap and submit it to Google Search Console.)
Your sitemap is, as the name suggests, a map of your website – your pages, images, posts, links etc.
Google’s automatic robots (Googlebots) will crawl your website and index your web pages.
Think of Google as a physical library. If you are looking for a specific book, because all the books in a library are organised into departments and sections, it becomes easier for you the find the book that you want amongst thousands of other books.
This is what Google does to your website and web pages when we talk about indexing.
Whilst the Googlebots are crawling and indexing your website, they are trying to find out as much information as possible about your website in order to index it correctly.
This is where things like blogging, content creation, niching, keywords, title tags, meta titles and descriptions, image alt tags (that we will be covering later in this post) all come into play and help Google understand more about your website, and therefore, index it correctly.
By understanding and indexing your website correctly, Google can then reference it correctly within its search results.
What Your Readers Tell Google About Your Website
The readers that come to your website from Google are also customers of Google.
Therefore, Google wants to ensure that the website that they referred to their customer is the right one and that their customer found what they are looking for.
To do this, Google measures how users react to your website and content. These signals can either increase or decrease your position on Google.
Good signals include
- Readers staying on your website for a long time
- Readers viewing other pages of your website
- Readers engaging with your content – commenting, sharing etc
Bad signals include
- Readers not allowing your website to load fully and ‘pogo-sticking’ off. This indicated to Google that your website is slow and not user-friendly.
- Readers hitting the back button and going back to the search results. This indicates to Google that the user did not find what they were looking for.
In conclusion, optimising your website for search engines really comes down to giving Google all the information that it needs to do its job properly, as well as making sure that your readers get exactly what they want from your content and have a positive experience.
…and I’m going to show you how to do both.
Fasten your seatbelts!
Your SEO KPI’s
I’m a great believer of ‘what gets measured gets managed’ so before we do anything else, you need to know what your goals are.
The obvious goal is to get more traffic, but there is a lot more to it than just increasing the number of monthly hits to your website.
As mentioned above, if your website visits are not staying on your website or viewing other pages, then this can hurt your SEO efforts.
Here are the minimum KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) that you should be measuring regularly.
- KPI #1 – The number of visitors
- KPI #2 – The average time a user spends on your website
- KPI #3 – The bounce rate
- KPI #4 – The average number of pages viewed per session
To get this information about your website you need to sign up for Google Analytics.
This free tool will tell you all the above information, plus so much more about your website.
NOTE: Please remember that SEO is a long game. Even after ticking every box on this blog post, your traffic is not going to skyrocket overnight. It takes time. Therefore, you need to measure your KPI’s consistently over the course of weeks, months and even years.
YOUR SEO GAME PLAN
Okay, so now that you have Google Analytics set up and you’re aware of what metrics you should be tracking, now is the time to really get your hands dirty.
As I mentioned before, SEO is not a quick game, it’s going to take a lot of time and effort.
But don’t worry, I’ve got your back.
Here are a few things that you should take into consideration.
If you are starting from the very beginning and are yet to register a domain name for your website, I would advise you to think long and hard about a URL that will not only be suitable, but also SEO friendly.
The aim of the game here is to try and get your main keyword into your domain name.
For example, if your website is all about travel, then try to pick a domain with the word ‘travel’ in it.
Try to keep your domain as short and straight to the point as possible and avoid using hyphens. Although long domains and hyphens don’t have a direct effect on your SEO, they are not user-friendly and therefore can affect your SEO indirectly.
Also bear in mind that if you have just registered a brand-new domain, it will take at least 6 months before you get any decent amount of traffic from search engines. This is because you need to build the credibility of your site.
To purchase a domain (and or hosting) I always recommend SiteGround. I use them for all of my websites and I couldn’t rate their service high enough.
Related Read: How to Start a Self-Hosted WordPress Website – Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners (With Videos)
Your permalink structure is the structure that your website follows when creating URLs for new posts and pages.
As mentioned in the domain section of this post, our aim to try and get our keywords into our post’s URL (permalink).
If you are using WordPress, then the default permalink settings are not SEO friendly (they’re also rather ugly) and they look something like this
To change this, head over to your WordPress dashboard and click Settings>Permalinks
Change the setting from ‘Plain’ to ‘Post Name’.
This means that WordPress will now use the title of your posts to form its URL. It will look something like this
Here’s a video showing you how to do this click-by-click.
Related Read: What’s The Best Permalink Structure For A WordPress Blog?
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you already have an up-and-running website with posts and pages and you change the permalink structure, it may result in ‘404 Page Not Found’ errors. Internal links and backlinks to those pages may no longer work. To fix this, you will have to set up 301 Redirects to re-direct the traffic. Click here for more info on how to do this.
Why You Need a Blog
It’s almost impossible to improve the SEO of your website and push it up the search engine rankings if you do not have a blog.
In order for any of these techniques to work, you must be posting regular content on your website.
Here are a few reasons as to why your website must have a blog
- Publishing new posts helps tell Google that your website is still active
- The content you publish tells Google more about your website
- Blog posts allow people to comment which tells Google that people are interested and engaging with your website.
- People are more likely to share your content via social media – therefore creating more links to your website
- Each time you publish a post you are increasing your chances of someone finding you online.
To find out more, check out an earlier post of mine 5 Very Important Reasons Why Your Business Website MUST Have a Blog where I cover those points in depth.
Install Yoast SEO Plugin
If you are using WordPress to help run your website, then one of the first things that you need to do is install a plugin called Yoast SEO.
There is a premium version of this plugin available, but to get you going, the free version will be more than suitable and you can download it free from the WordPress repository.
Once installed, Yoast SEO will help you manage your meta titles and meta descriptions, your content creation, keywords, all coming up later in this post, and Google Search Console and sitemap, as explained above.
But for now, just make sure that it is installed on your WordPress website.
Install a Social Sharing Plugin
One of the easiest ways to increase your organic traffic is to have your content shared via social media.
Sharing content is also a social proof signal to Google that your content is engaging.
If you want people to share your content then make it easy for them to do so.
Statistics show that over 50% of people expect a website to load in 2 seconds or less and 79% of web users who experience a slow site won’t return to that site again!
In other words, the longer people are made to wait, the more likely they are to leave, go to another site and never come back again.
By increasing the speed of your website, it’s going to help reduce the number of people that “pogo-stick” off your site.
Pogo-sticking is when someone visits your site but then quickly clicks the back button and heads back to the Google Search results. Pogo-sticking is a negative signal telling Google that the user didn’t find what they were looking for. This can hurt your search engine rankings.
A speedy website is going to work in your favour. It also enables the Googlebots to crawl and index your website much quicker.
Overall, it’s a win-win. It will help to improve your user’s experience as well as get a thumbs-up from Google.
Here are some ways to increase the speed of your website.
- Install a CDN (Content Delivery Network)
- Use AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages)
- Serve scaled images
- Install a caching plugin
- Compress images
- Limit the number of WordPress plugins you use
- Use a good WordPress theme with clean code
If this all sounds too technical for you at the moment, don’t worry about it, look out for a future post coming soon where I talk about increasing your site speed in a little bit more depth with some more explanation. Alternatively, to make sure that you don’t miss a post, scroll to the bottom of this post and subscribe to my blog.
In the meantime, just remember to keep your website as light as possible and avoid over-complicating it, adding too many plugins or too many large images.
At this point in the post, you should …
- Have a website with a domain name that contains your keyword
- Have an SEO friendly permalink structure
- Have Yoast SEO and a social sharing plugin installed (if on WordPress)
- Understand how search engines work
- Have your SEO Goals and KPI’s noted
- Understand that you need to blog
Now comes the actual work – creating content.
But you can’t just throw anything out there, if it was that easy, we’d all be ranking number 1 on Google.
As you craft the content for your blog, here are a few things that you must keep in mind in order to boost your SEO efforts.
This is more of a warning…
Do not just hit copy and paste.
When you are researching the information for your blog posts, it can be very tempting to copy and paste paragraphs from other sources.
Unless you are quoting and linking back to that source, then do not do it.
Google is not stupid, and it knows when you have cheated and copied and pasted your content. It really is the Big Brother of the web.
You will be penalised by search engines if your website has duplicated content.
This is because you are not bringing any value to the internet – you are just clogging it up with information that is already out there. And Google has enough web pages to crawl without people copying and duplicating them.
When a user types a search into Google, if the results provide two pages that have the exact same content, then this isn’t helpful to the user searching. Therefore, Google will only show one of the pages and drop the other page.
The page that Google decides to show will be based on other ranking factors.
If you have a brand new blog and you have copied your content from a more established and credible blog, then you can guarantee that your website will be the one that is dropped and your dreams of hitting the number 1 spot on Google can be kissed goodbye.
Focus On One Niche
The definition of a niche is “a product, services, or interests that appeal to a small, specialized section of the population.”
When you create content, it is advisable that you create your content for one niche and you really focus on your target audience.
As the saying goes, ‘by targeting everyone, you target no one’.
By having a specific niche all your posts, images, pages, videos, tags, categories etc will all contain similar keywords and therefore make it much easier for the Googlebots to understand what your website is about.
Therefore, before you start writing anything, make sure you understand your niche and your target audience.
They’ve been many studies conducted on the correlation between length of content and page rank.
An example study carried out by Brian Dean (founder of Backlinko) in 2016 resulted in the conclusion that “longer content tends to rank higher in Google’s search results.”
In the above diagram from Brian’s study, aside from the number two ranking, the position on Google decreases in correlation with the number of words in a post.
The fewer words in a piece of content = a lower position on Google.
This could be down to a number of factors.
Google could just simply prefer long-form content or (and most likely) the engagement signals from long-form content are a lot stronger.
With long-form content…
- users tend to stay on a page for longer
- it’s likely that a longer piece of copy is going to contain more internal and external links
- it’s more likely to get backlinks from reputable sources
- it’s more likely to be shared on social media.
Whichever way you look at it, taking this data into consideration, the content that you are creating needs to be 2000+ words.
You need to focus on creating high-quality and long-form content.
Sadly, a 500-word post isn’t going to cut it in today’s war for the top spot on Google.
More and more people are creating in-depth posts, and if you want to compete with them, then you’re going to have to do this too.
Your keywords are the search terms that people will use when searching for your content on Google.
For example, if you have a travel blog, your website’s main keyword will most probably be ‘travel’. When crafting your content, you may focus on keywords such as ‘budget travel’, or ‘European travel’, or ‘gap year travel’.
As you write your blog post, keep your chosen keyword in mind and craft your content around that.
As the Googlebots crawl your website, it will be these keywords that it will pick up on.
The keywords help to inform Google what your post is about as well as what your website is about.
A while ago I published a post about Why I Wish Everyone Would Shut the F**k up About Keyword Density, and my views in this post still stand.
As soon as you mention the term ‘keyword’ everyone thinks that the aim of the game is to stuff as many keywords into a post as possible, or that there is some magic percentage that you must hit in order to rank on Google.
Both of which are simply not true.
Although you should be paying attention to the keywords that you use and where you place them (e.g. title tags, meta titles and meta descriptions, domain name, permalink structure, alt images, coming up in this post) you shouldn’t freak out too much about the keyword density of a post.
As long as you are human and write your posts in a natural tone, then the main keywords of your subject will naturally appear.
Often, people make the mistake of thinking that your keywords are just single words, for example, ‘travel’.
Although your keywords can be singular, they can be made up of a string of words, sometimes even a whole sentence. This is known as a long tail keyword.
Here’s how they help.
If you do a search on Google for the term ‘travel’, you will see that you get 3,560,000,000 results.
Therefore, if you create a post around the keyword of ‘travel’, you have a lot of other pages to compete with!
If you do a search on Google for a longer keyword term, such as ‘budget travel’, you will see that you get 327,000,000 results.
That is still a lot of pages to compete with, but it is 3,233,000,000 less than the first search we did.
Now let’s try a long-tail keyword.
Searching on Google for ‘budget tips for students travelling to Europe’ gets 35,300,000 results.
That’s 3,524,700,000 fewer pages to compete with than our first search of just ‘travel’ and 291,700,000 fewer pages than our second search of ‘budget travel’.
Do you see how this works?
By crafting your content around long-tail keywords your focusing in on your niche and target audience, therefore, reducing the number of other web pages that you have to compete with to get to number 1.
LSI stands for Latent Semantic Indexing, and it basically means keywords that are semantically related to the primary keyword.
Again, these help to give Google more information on what your post is about.
For example, if you think of the word ‘cars’, this could be a reference to a car dealership or Cars the animated movie.
How does Google know which one?
This is where LSI keywords come into play.
A car dealership website is likely to have terms on their website such as ‘test drive’, ‘new and used’ and ‘hatchback’. All these related words help Google to determine the difference.
Where possible, try to weave some LSI keywords into your content.
A handy tip to find LSI keywords is by going to Google and searching for your primary keyword. Then scroll right down to the bottom and you will see a ‘searches related to’ box. In here you can find a variety of LSI keywords to use in your content.
More and more people are using personal assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, to find the answers that they are looking for and to search the web.
Data is showing a 61% year-on-year increase of question searches.
In the next 3 years, it is predicted that voice searches will make up from 30% to over 50% of all searches.
Although optimising predominantly for voice searches isn’t going to give you a huge result right now, it’s something that you need to keep in mind when you are writing and structuring your content.
Here are some tips to help optimise your content for voice searches
- Use natural language
- Use long-tail keywords that include ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘where’.
- Cover a topic in detail
- Provide both the question and answer on the same page
Writing and Layout
Make sure your content is useful. As terrible as it sounds, it’s not all about you.
Writing posts that answer peoples questions and helps them solve a problem is more likely to get engagement from your readers (shares and/or comments). Again, this is another tick in the box from Google.
Try to limit the number of pop-ups and advertisements that surround your content. Too many can be distracting and off-putting for your reader and they’re more likely to hit the back button – which is not a good signal to send to Google.
Ensure that your theme has an easy to read font with good line and word spacing. I cannot stress how important this is. As someone who reads and reviews lots of books for my book blog, the font and spacing plays a huge role in how enjoyable I find the book to read and, more importantly, how likely I am to read that book again. The same goes for your blog.
When you create your content, it is advisable that you lay it out in paragraphs with headings and subheading rather than one large lump of text.
Firstly, content that is broken down into manageable chunks using simple language is going to give your user a much better experience and they will be more likely to stick around. As mentioned before, this will give you a thumbs up from Google.
Secondly, your headings and subheadings, when used correctly with title tags, will again help to tell Google more about what is on that page.
For more information how to create great content, check out Content Machine by Dan Norris. I have also read and reviewed his book on my book blog.
At this point, you know how to write and structure your content to help benefit both your user and Google.
But what about publishing your content on your blog?
Well, believe it or not, there’s more to publishing blog content than just dropping a word document into WordPress and hitting the publish button.
To give you the best chance of ranking in search engines, there are a few things that you need to do to help the crawler bots do their jobs.
Earlier in the post (in the writing and layout section) I explained how important it was for you to lay out your content into paragraphs with subheadings.
Your main heading and subheadings need to be wrapped in title tags.
These are abbreviated in HTML is <h1> <h2> <h3> and so on.
- <h1> is for Heading 1 – this is usually for the main heading of the post
- <h2> is for Heading 2 – this is usually used for the sub-headings of the post
- <h3> is for Heading 3 – this is usually used for any headings under the subheadings of the post
- Then there’s <h4> and <h5> and so on, each one getting smaller.
When writing your post in HTML your headings and subheadings need to be contained within these title tags.
<h1>This is the main heading of the post</h1>
<h2>This is the sub-heading of the post</h2>
If you are using WordPress, these title tags are already pre-set for you.
All you need to do is highlight the heading or subheading and choose which title tag you would like to wrap it in from the drop-down menu.
It’s important that your keywords for your post are in contained in your heading and subheading and wrapped in the correct title tag.
Google views the words within the title tag and is more likely to consider the keywords contained within it.
I often see bloggers simply making their sub-headings bold rather than using the correct formatted heading. This is a rookie error that could be losing you some serious SEO bonus points.
Meta Titles and Meta Descriptions
This is the information that is shown in Google’s search results explaining what that page is about on your website.
This helps to benefit your SEO in two ways.
- The meta title and description helps to tell Google more about that post or page on your website
- The meta title and description helps to tell the user that is searching what that post or page is about and whether they should click through to your website.
All of your pages and posts must have meta titles and descriptions that are of the correct length.
The easiest way to do this if you are using WordPress is to install the free plugin Yoast SEO.
Once installed, you will have a box appear at the bottom of every post and page in your dashboard. Here you can edit both the meta title and description with ease.
Image Alt tags
Alt tags are used to tell Google what a picture is about and for users that are blind or visually impaired, screen readers will usually read out this text.
All of your images should contain alt tags that describe that picture.
If possible, try to include the main keywords of your post within the images alt tags.
If you are using WordPress, there are a few ways to add alt tags to your images.
One way is to add it alt tag to your image as you insert it into a post.
After click ‘Add Media’ and selecting the image that you want to insert, simple add the description of the image (preferably with post keywords) into the alt tag box, as shown below.
Links are the lifeblood of the internet and a major factor in optimising your website for search engines.
There three different types of links.
- Internal Links – these are links from one of your website pages to another one of your website pages. As the name suggests, it’s links that are contained within your website.
- External Links – these are links that go from your website to another website.
- Backlinks – these are links that go from other people’s websites back to your website.
Internal links help Google to understand your website and its structure.
The Googlebots will follow the links from one page to another, therefore, helping Google to index your site much more efficiently.
They also help your users to navigate your website, therefore helping to improve your user experience and to encourage them to stick around for longer. These are all positive signals for Google.
Since these are links that are going from one of your website pages to another one of your website pages, then these are really easy for you to build up as you are creating and publishing your content.
TIP: Remember to go back through your older blog posts and add internal links to newer posts where relevant.
Linking out to external websites not only helps you to add more value to your content but by linking to trustworthy sites with a high domain authority, it can help Google trust your site more.
On the other side of the coin, linking to spammy websites will help Google to trust your site less – so be careful who you link out to you and who you associate your website with.
As mentioned, backlinks are links from other websites back to yours. Again, as in external linking, you only want to encourage links from good quality websites.
A few backlinks from high-quality websites are worth so much more than hundreds of backlinks from sites that are on Google’s naughty list.
I cannot stress how important backlinks are to the success of your website within search engine rankings.
To help give you an idea, here’s a graph showing the number of backlinks to a website vs it’s ranking within Google.
Please don’t get disheartened if this is your first website and you currently have zero backlinks.
We all have to start somewhere.
Your goal here is to keep building up your backlinks. Here are a few ways you can encourage other credible sites to link to your content.
- Build relationship with other bloggers and website administrators
- Guest post on other relevant websites in return for a backlink
- Create great content that other websites are happy to share and link to
- Reach out to other people in your industry and ask them for a backlink
Keep your eyes peeled for a future post where I explain backlinks in more depth. Alternatively, if you don’t want to miss a post please croll to this bottom of this post and subscribe.
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when optimising your website for search engines.
The key is to not give up too soon. The main reason why people fail in this game is because they don’t see results straight away and therefore quit.
You have to trust in the system and take a leap of faith.
Keep doing publishing good quality content on a regular basis and make sure that you tick every box on this list.
To help you out, I have created a free 20-point checklist of this post that you can download and print off.
I’d love to know more about your SEO journey or if there are any important SEO factors that you think I have missed, please comment below.
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