ELI5 SEO

Search engine optimization … that fancy phrase you have heard about for years. You know it’s important, but do you really know how it works? In this “Explain like I am Five” (ELI5) Guide, I will explain everything you need to know to get your website SEO optimized.

What is SEO?

SEO is short for “search engine optimization.” Simply put, this is the process of improving your webpage’s search result visibility. With millions of results for every search engine query, SEO helps your page rank for certain keyword phrases. Unlike Search Engine Marketing campaigns (SEM) that involve managing paid ads, SEO is an “organic,” unpaid process. This means that you cannot pay for a higher position; you must earn it by playing by the search engine’s rules.

Why are search engine rankings important?

High ranked pages get a lot more traffic than low ranked pages. More traffic = more sales and visibility.

To better understand the decay that occurs from high position to low position pages, let’s consider some research. In analyzing over five million SERPs, a Backlinko study found that:

  • Top position results get 31.7% of all clicks
  • Top three position results get 75.1% of all clicks
  • Second page results and beyond get only 0.78% of all clicks (Yikes!)

Your search engine result position has a huge impact on traffic. By understanding how these positions are determined, you can give yourself the competitive advantage over less savvy competitors.

On-page SEO and Off-page SEO

Now that we know what SEO is and why it’s important, you may be wondering: what factors influence SEO? Let’s lift the hood up and look around.

SEO is separated into two buckets: On-page SEO and Off-Page SEO. On-page SEO consists of factors within your website’s code. You have lots of control over these factors, and optimizing them will improve how users experience your website.

On the other hand, Off-page SEO occurs outside your website’s code, where you have less control. This balance of controlled on-page and uncontrolled off-page factors check and balance one another. If your strategy does not consider both of these categories, your website is less likely to earn that elusive top position.

On-Page SEO Checklist:

Content Factors

As discussed in the previous section, on-page SEO is what you control. As so, content factors are very important for SEO rankings, distinguishing yourself from competitors, and getting searchers to click on your page.

Google Results Description

Title Tag

A title tag is the title of the page. While it should hook users in, it must be unique and descriptive of page contents. Here are some key considerations:

  • Keywords: By including relevant keywords within the title, search engine will better understand your content. For example, the title “20 Best Men’s Shoes for Hiking in 2020 - Bob’s Shoe Store” gives a very good idea of what an article will be about. It also includes keywords that will likely appear within the body of the article. That’s a good title.
  • Ideal length: 50-60 characters. If a webpage is longer, Google will cut off the article at the points where it runs over the character limit. This make makes the title hard to read, which decreases clickthrough rates.
  • Branding: Many websites include branding at the end of their title tag (see “Bob’s Shore Store” above. This helps improve your branding, but it also helps rank the page for search queries related to your organization.

Meta Description

A meta description is the description of the page. Think of this as a one sentence description for the page. Here are some key considerations:

  • Keywords: Like title tags, strategically use the keywords you want to target here, but also make sure they appear within the body of the page.
  • Ideal Length: ~ 150 characters. If it’s much shorter, you are missing out on including keywords. If it’s too long, the search engine will cut you off like the Walt Disney example above.

Heading tags

In a website, there are typically 6 levels of HTML heading tags that are used on a webpage (<h1>, <h2>, <h3>, etc.). While h1 is usually the title of the page, the other subheadings help the search engine organize content.

Use these heading tags to break content into sections and further embed keywords. If you scan this page, you will see that I am using a wide range of headings to nest subtopics within topics.

Good Content

Every SEO guide will recommend writing good content as the #1 priority for a website. I agree. But what exactly makes “good” SEO content? At its core, this is writing that is clear and makes users want to keep reading. Think of great articles or books you’ve read. That’s what you should aim for first.

After that, you should consider keyword planning. Keyword planning involves using a tool like Google Keyword Planner to identify keywords and keyword phrases with high traffic and low competition. By appropriately incorporating such keywords into your page, users can discover better content and your website can earn a higher position.

  • Writing quality: Employ proper grammar, punctuation, etc. Also, apply good style that can be understood by as many audiences as possible.
  • Ideal Article Length: Recommendations vary on this, but the sweet spot tends to be 500-2,000 words.
  • Don’t stuff keywords: In the early 2000s, websites would cram hundreds of keywords into articles. This never really worked. Google can easily figure this out, and your website will be penalized. Just write with the user’s experience in mind.

Image Alt Text

Alt Text is what appears when an image fails. Search engines use this text for indexing images and creating screen readers for disabled users. If you fail to include alt text with images on your website, this will hurt your search engine position. If you include alt text and ensure it’s relevant to your content, however, this will boost your SEO and improve your user experience.

URL Structure

Structured URLs are easy to understand and much better than unstructured URLs. If your URL has a lot of numbers or strings of text you do not understand, your URL is likely unstructured. Google prefers URLs that are simple and contain relevant information to what people are searching. Here is an ideal example:

https://www.example.com/category-keyword/subcategory-keyword/primary-keyword

Internal Links Example

You will notice that nearly all websites have a menu bar at the top of every webpage that links to a variety of subpages and internal links. This is important because it:

  1. Improves user experience
  2. Helps search engines develop and internal hierarchy of the website

By employing an experienced web developer or using a well-developed template, this should be fairly easy to integrate into a website’s development. Poor structure will be detrimental to a new blog’s success.

A broken link occurs when a URL has been removed or a page is not working correctly. Generally this creates a 404 error, which means a page cannot be found. This is bad for a user experience and bad for SEO. As so, all website owners should ensure that their website is free of bad links by using a tool like Dead Link Checker.

Indexing

I once had a boss notice that an unpublished webpage was still being indexed on Google. The boss said, “Give those folks at Google a call and tell them to take that page down this instant.” I said, “Uh, that’s not how it works.” The boss said, “Well, how does it work?” Here is how it works.

Sitemap and robots.txt

There are two files that websites need to interact with search engines. The first is a robots.txt file. This tells the search engine if it can “crawl” the website for content. Without this little file, you will not appear on a Google or Bing. If you have a sensitive page within a website, robots.txt files can prevent these pages from being accessed.

The second essential file is a sitemap. Its job is to inform search engine crawlers that new content has been added. This is how new pages appear on a search engine. If your web page changes does not appear right away, do not panic like my old boss. It can take a few days for a page to get indexed or de-indexed. You can request Google prioritize crawling a web page through Google Search Console.

Mobile

Mobile Friendliness

Mobile Display

At the time this article was published, over 50% of internet users are using mobile phones. Those numbers are consistent with the traffic I receive on this website. Google’s algorithm gives preference to websites that have mobile-friendly websites. Good web designers will have a deep understanding of factors like text readability and tap targets that help determine mobile friendliness.

To test if your website is mobile friendly, use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.

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Structured Data

Schema Markup

Schema markup is code that helps search engines understand content in ways metadata and title tags cannot. This markup, which is typically added to the <head> section of your code, adds additional information such as ratings, events, person information, social media, and other applicable content to a blog. See the example below. To create this markup code, check out a tool like Technical SEO’s Markup Generator.

Schema Example

Open Graph Protocol

Open Graph protocol was developed by Facebook to allow social media sites to share rich data posts like the example below.

Like schema markup, page tags like title, author, description, etc. are added to an open graph snippet that is stored in the <head> section of your website. Failure to include this will ensure that your posts will not format correctly when shared on social media. This will hurt your ranking.

Twitter Cards

Twitter cards are a sharing tool created by Twitter that allow for rich sharing of webpage content. Like Schema markup and Open Graph profile, twitter card code should be added to the <head> section of your website. Failure to include will hurt search engine ranking and your ability to share efficiently.

The Official Twitter Card page recommends code that looks as follows:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary" />
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@flickr" />
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Small Island Developing States Photo Submission" />
<meta name="twitter:description" content="View the album on Flickr." />
<meta name="twitter:image" content="https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5510/14338202952_93595258ff_z.jpg" />

Security

SSL Certificate and HTTPS Protocol

In Chrome, you will notice a padlock next to a webpage URL. This means that the webpage you are accessing has a security measure called an SSL Certificate. In short, this means that the website has better authentication and encryption than a website without an SSL certificate. This is done by forcing a website to use HTTPS protocol (this is code at the beginning of a URL) and preventing mixed content (i.e. some content is HTTPS and some is HTTP)

These are typically provided by domain providers or content delivery networks like Cloudflare.

Performance

Page Speed

Page Speed

This is simply how quickly a desktop or mobile page loads when someone opens a URL. This can be tested with a tool like Google’s PageSpeed Insights.

While maximizing page speed can get quite technical, a general rule of thumb is that the more stuff you add to a webpage (i.e. plugins, photos, videos, heavy design, etc.), the slower your website will be. Search engines highly favor fast websites, so always prioritize while building and upgrading websites.

Google Analytics

Since Google is the biggest search engine of them all, users who use Google Analytics receive a slight bump in search engine ranking. Google Analytics is a phenomenal tool and easy to integrate into all types of websites. This one is a no-brainer.

Favicon

A favicon is the small graphic that appears in the tabs of a webpage. This is a branding opportunity for your website, but it also improved user experience, since it helps users organize and access web tabs.

There are many favicon generators. I like Real Favicon Generator.

404 Page

As mentioned in the Broken Link section, pages break sometimes. When a webpage cannot be found, this results in a 404 error. When this happens, your website should have a custom 404 page that informs users the page they are looking for does not exist. This will make for a better user experience, and it will help your search position.

Domain

While not as complex of an issue as some of the content factors, search engines consider several elements related to domain names. In creating a domain, your domain name should be consistent with how you refer to your company in the site title, footer, about page, etc.

Additionally, Google takes into consideration the age of the domain name and how long the domain is registered in advance. While this will not be a make-or-break for new websites, Google wants to ensure that it is not recommending websites that are bound to fall victim to the burnout I discussed in my Three Stage Content Marketing Lifecycle article. So, the longer you have been committed to a website and the longer you purchase a domain in advance, the better.

Off-Page Checklist:

A backlink is simply a link from someone else’s website to yours. Search engines consider this link as a sort of endorsement, saying, “Hey, check out this site, there is something useful and credible to see.”

Backlinks are one of the most important and most talked about factors in determining search engine position. They are also one of the hardest factors to control, because acquiring backlinks requires strategy, time, and a lot of hard work. Additionally, the success of acquiring several backlinks can be trumped by the realization that many high positioned websites have hundreds of thousands of backlinks that make them untouchable for small businesses and creators.

Before you get discouraged though, remember backlinks are all about momentum. The first links are most difficult, but once you get several high quality, highly accessed links - they will do work for you. You just gotta keep at it.

With that said, let’s look at backlinking factors to consider.

Domain Authority of Linking site

Whenever your website earns a backlink, it’s a good thing. However, not all links are created equally. Google highly values links from websites with a high domain authority. Domain authority is a measure of a websites overall SEO. If a website has a high domain authority, it means it has excellent SEO and is considered extremely credible. Examples of websites with high domains include major media outlets, government websites, and websites that are household names.

Receiving a link from a website with high domain authority is like receiving a great recommendation from a prominent business leader. It will legitimize your website and boost your SEO quickly. On the other hand, if you receive a link from a website with no authority, it won’t do much for your SEO. To check a website’s domain authority, use a tool like Ahref’s Website “Authority” Checker.

# Pages linking to website

This is simple the overall number of links pointing to your page. The more you have, the better, but do not stray to the dark side in an attempt to gain more back links.

Black hat backlinks include purchasing links from a link farm, spamming website’s comment sections with your page, and generating other unnatural URLs. This may give your website a boost in the short run, but it is a bad practice that is not sustainable. Google will heavily penalize your website if it catches you doing this.

Content Relevance

Since search engines view links as endorsements, links from relevant websites boost off-page SEO more than links from irrelevant websites. This means that receiving a link from a website that has similar content and keywords will be a bigger boost than a link from an obscure website. As so, it’s a great idea to build connections with like-minded web authors and engage with individuals in your space.

In the early 2000s, website comment sections were spammed into oblivion with random website owners sharing links to their websites. They were doing this to increase backlinks on domains with high authorities. This ended up decreasing the user experience. As so, the rel=”nofollow” code was introduced into links (see below). This ultimately prevent spammers from gaining links this way.

<a href="https://markdfleming.com" rel="nofollow">Anchor Text</a>

Nowadays, nofollow links appear in many formats (i.e. social media links, etc.). While they do not count towards your off-page SEO, they can be useful for generating traffic. To improve your SEO, however, you will want to ensure that the backlinks you are creating are marked as “dofollow.”

When you create a link like this: Mark Fleming Blog, the anchor text (Mark Fleming Blog) is what appears on a website. Search engines consider this when evaluating backlinks. This will help you improve your position for keywords included in the anchor text.

Traffic

Overall traffic (social, direct, email, organic, paid, etc.)

Last but certainly not least, we must remember that organic traffic does not exist in a vacuum. It is only one stream within the overall traffic coming to our website. Other paths such as social, direct, email, paid, etc. are lucrative paths that can make or break a business.

Search engines consider the overall traffic a page receives and the traffic related social media accounts. As so, make sure to balance your marketing efforts. Spend time and resources in improving your weakest links, and SEO success will be a step closer.

Further Reading: