Updated: Aug 1
So you've heard about SEO and think it's probably time you should do something about it for your website. Or, you know the basics, but you aren't sure what else you should be doing. How can you get Google to recognize your site in amongst the millions of others out there?
The good news is this: SEO is actually really sensible and, with a little training, anyone can do it (really!). Take it from me: I started writing on a topic I knew next-to-nothing about, and over the course of 5 years, built a website that ranked for over 250 words in first position on Google (don't believe me: take a look here).
Here's what I'm going to cover in this blog post, and the main things you need to know about SEO. Read this, and I guarantee you'll be able to publish content that ranks.
Of course, there are other technical aspects of SEO that can affect the success of your website as well as the content elements that I'm covering here. I would always advise you to have someone check on the technical health of your website before embarking on any SEO project. Get rid of any gremlins first, then work on building your site's SEO authority.
1 Quality is everything
Google's mission is:
'to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.'
This means you need to make your content as 'universally accessible and useful' as possible, in order for Google to rank your website content high on its list of results. And this means your content needs to be high quality.
Search engines are constantly seeking to improve their algorithms to surface the best quality content. There are lots of ways people try to 'game' the system to encourage their content to rank, but these are short-term strategies that are almost always penalised by the search engines in the end.
This is actually great for people like you and me! We are authorities in our fields and we have bags of knowledge and ways of expressing it that nobody else does. Now we just have to get it out of our heads and onto paper (well, screens!).
To ensure your content is high quality, first of all, it must be original. It must not appear elsewhere on the internet. It must be human crafted (don't be tempted to use AI content generation - sites are getting penalised for this every day. It's a short-sighted measure).
So what do I mean by great quality? Well, I'll explain that shortly. In the meantime there are a few other important points to cover before we get there. Let's zoom out for a second, because before you even start writing, you simply have to...
2 ... write about a topic that inspires you.
The chances are, if you've chosen to run a business with a certain product or product type, you're probably quite motivated and passionate in this area.
Regardless of whether you're writing the content for your website yourself, this can be a really big factor in how successful you are at publishing regularly. And publish regularly you must.
So, while this might not sound technically as important as some of the points that will follow, bear this one in mind, as it can mean the difference between success and failure.
3 Research potential keywords
[Quick aside: a keyword doesn't just mean one word. It can be a whole sentence, and very often, the longer the sentence, the easier it is to rank for.]
Selecting the right keyword is arguably the single most important aspect of effective SEO (aside from creating high quality content).
So you need to choose keywords that are going to move the needle for your business.
The tricky bit here is imagining yourself into the head of your target audience. What are they typing in to a search engine when they find your product?
Of course you will want to rank for your brand's name. That will probably come naturally fairly early on in the life of your site, and may well be the first keyword your site ranks for, so you probably don't need to focus too much on it, it will come naturally.
But say, for example, you have a plant store that sells subscriptions. You probably want to rank for 'plant subscriptions', and eventually 'plants', but the competition for those terms is quite high, so what you need to do in the first instance is target other, lower trafficked terms, that are within your topic, and of genuine use and benefit to people who are shopping for or researching plants, like 'ideal plant gifts' or 'how to care for your aloe vera plant', or 'how much to water your Christmas cactus'.
The goal of this exercise is not always to find keywords that will drive visitors who immediately convert into visitors into your store (although when they do it's a great bonus!). What we're doing here is establishing brand credibility with search engines, so that you can then target higher difficulty keywords. SEO is a long play, but once built, it continues to yield results.
Keyword research is an absolutely huge topic within SEO, and one I can (and will) go into in a lot more detail in subsequent blog posts. But when you're first starting out, it's enough to know that this needs to be a step in your process, and you need to think carefully about how your customers will be finding you, and build this into your content strategy.
4 Choose appropriate keywords
Once you have a shortlist of keywords you want to rank for, decide which of them you consider to be most 'achievable'.
When building a website from the ground up, it's really important to build domain authority. In order to do that, your website needs to rank perfectly for as many keywords as possible. The easiest way to do that is by choosing low-competition keywords.
The perfect keyword is:
Something that loads of people aren't already ranking for. You want the competition for keywords to be really low, until your site is a well-established domain authority.
Something that you can produce really high quality content for - your article needs to be authoritative and credible.
You can provide your own spin on a particular keyword. Keywords won't always be the most interesting terms on their own, but can you add something that makes it really compelling to read?
You can create supporting visuals, either through original photography or graphic design.
Something that you're exited to write about, or can hire someone who is excited to write about.
5 Create keyword clusters
Once you've figured out a bunch of keywords that you want to target, you then need to think about them in clusters.
Google views content clusters very positively, and groups of keywords that are similar establishes your credibility and authority on a certain topic. Here's an example of some blog titles that would work well as a single cluster:
How to care for your monstera deliciosa plant.
How much water to give a monstera deliciosa.
How to repot your monstera deliciosa.
How to propagate your monstera deliciosa.
How to tell if your monstera deliciosa is healthy.
Common monstera deliciosa pests and how to combat them.
Different monstera varieties and how to tell them apart.
So you see how much potential there is for content clusters? Work on building out these groups of content, a cluster at a time.
6 Create amazing content
As I've already mentioned, quality content is the cornerstone of any SEO strategy.
You need to be able to write an authoritative article around this keyword and based on its content. You need to be prepared to research other articles not just from the internet, but from books, newspapers, by speaking to real human experts, or by surveying your target customer.
Can you produce original photography to accompany your article?
The foundations of high quality content are as follows:
Unique, original content. (This means NO AI-generated content.)
Excellent grammar and punctuation.
Wide vocabulary, without being inaccessible.
Simple, straightforward language, without unnecessary embellishment.
Original photography or imagery, where appropriate.
It's actually easier than you think. The chances are, you can do this part already - and this is the 20% of effort that will give you 80% of the results. You are an expert in your field, your words are your own. You just need to get started. (Sometimes, that can be the hardest part.)
7 Make sure your keyword appears within the article
Now you've written your content, we need to get down to practicalities: these are the details, the cherry on the cake, if you like. If you already have high quality, original content, these are the last incremental improvements.
Your target keyword needs to appear within the main heading of the article and one of the Heading 2 tags.*
(*If you don't know what Heading 2 tags are, don't worry - I've covered this lower down the page.)
Your keyword also needs to appear several times within the text of the article, but needs to sound natural. Do not force it into the text where it doesn't go - this is called 'keyword stuffing' and Google does not like it at all. Always err on the side of caution, and include it fewer times if in doubt.
8 Lay your article out in manageable chunks
Shorter blocks of text makes articles easier for people to read and digest. Google knows this. So you need to ensure that your articles are presented in a format that is easy to read. (Remember Google's mission: to make high quality content accessible.)
Start with an introduction to your article. This needs to grab the reader's attention and reassure them that they will be reading what they think they've arrived to read. The intro should be 1-2 sentences max.
Follow this up with a list of topics that you'll be covering in the article. Include links from each of these topics you'll be discussing to the relevant location within the document. See the top of this article as an example. :-)
Use headings to separate large chunks of text. As a rough guide, assume anything over 250 words needs a new heading. Remember, Google wants your content to be easy to understand, with lots of signposts for the reader.
Be sure to include a cover image for a blog post, or associated image for a regular webite page.
Create links from your article to at least one other article or page within your site. The more genuinely helpful links you can include, the better.
There are two types of links you need to include within your article.
1) Links to other, relevant content within your own site.
Consistently referencing your own work, especially cornerstone content for your own site, signals to Google that it's valuable and useful. Don't be afraid to provide as many relevant and useful links to existing content on your site as you can - but the key word here is relevant. Only include a link if it adds value or fits naturally into your page or article.
2) Links to other, relevant content elsewhere on the internet. Aim to include one per page,
It can be tempting to skip this one, because what we're always told by the Funnel Builders is that once we've got a visitor to our site, we have to give them as few opportunities as possible to leave. But that's doing ourselves a disservice. If our content is genuinely helpful and engaging, and people find it useful, we don't need to be afraid of them leaving and never returning to our site. And if we're building authority and credibility for our work, it's natural that we'd want to cite sources or references outside of our own website. So don't be afraid to do this. As a starting point, aim to always include one external link on each SEO-optimized page of your website.
10 Tagging headings and text <h1> and <h2> and what that means
Tags are the identifiers that Google uses to understand the structure of a website, and of a particular page. It places a lot of importance on these tags, so you need to use them correctly or you may get penalized. Thankfully, this is a really quick and simple thing to do, and very easy to build into your standard workflow. Once you've learned the basics, it will become second nature and you won't have to think about why you're doing it each time.
H1 tags are the tags that identify the main heading of a site.
On each page of your website, you should have ONE set of <h1> tags only. Usually, this will be the title of a blog, or the name of a website page.
All other headings on that page should be Heading 2 or lower. Take a look at this blog article - this is how we've structured this page.
Any text that isn't a heading should be formatted as 'Paragraph' text.
11 Use of language within the article
Google's philosophy is that great content should be accessible to everyone. This means language should be simple, and you should avoid elaborate or over-complicated sentences.
Keep sentences short and simple. (20 words or fewer)
Avoid using complicated or flowery language.
Avoid use of the passive tense (e.g. 'Sunscreen is used to prevent skin damage.' --> Switch this to 'Use sunscreen to prevent skin damage.')
To be honest, I find the last one pretty contentious. If your business is one that naturally lends itself to having to use the passive tense (e.g. medical or scientific fields very often have to use passive tense to remain impartial), don't allow the SEO guidelines to dictate to you what you write.
They aren't supposed to override the quality of your content. You are the authority, so you'll need to make judgement calls on how appropriate any of these are.
12 How to tag your images
What are the rules around alt text for a given image?
Whenever you upload an image to your site, you need to make sure it is tagged appropriately with 'alt' and 'title' text.
These are two small but important fields which help search engines understand the structure of your content, and the images within it.
'Alt tags' are used by screen readers to provide a literal description of an image for visually impaired people.
'Title tags' are used to provide detail on the content of the image. This text appears when someone hovers over the image with their mouse.
If you can include your focus keyword in one of the image descriptions on your site, that can be beneficial, but you should only include it if it naturally fits with the image and the purpose of the tag. It isn't essential.
The goal with all content, and all images, is to make them as useful, and discoverable, as possible. So if you're uploading an image, make sure you describe the image itself first and foremost, rather than just describing the image as it relates to your article.
Another point of housekeeping: be sure to always have the appropriate licence to use an image on your website, or permission from the image owner to reproduce it on your site. Google hasn't indicated that this would provoke a penalty (and how would they know? There is no centralised image licence bank it could check against.), but I suspect it might be a factor in future. Apart from anything, it's good practice.
13 Update the meta description for your pages
This is a meta description of a website page:
The text in blue is the meta title and the text in grey is the meta description.
For each page of your website, you should update the meta title and description in order to make it as useful as possible for someone who is viewing search results in this way.
You shouldn't assume that they know anything about you or your business, so the meta description should provide an accurate representation of the content that they will discover if they click on that link from Google. It should be different for each page of your website.
There are meta description tools that will help you optimize the length of the meta description, and which may encourage you to include your target keyword. It can be really useful to install one of these as an app, widget or plugin, for your site, as they can also help you identify any meta descriptions that are missing, or which are in need of updating.
14 Keep up the pace of content creation
Google loves and rewards sites that are prolific in publishing. It's absolutely fine to publish evergreen content, but you need to publish lots of it. Quantity of content is a great way to improve your discoverability, and improving your authrority with search engines.
That doesn't mean you have to set yourself a content goal that requires all your time and attention. I'm sure many of us would love nothing more than creating content all day, every day, but of course, this has to be balanced with an overall marketing strategy that works for your brand. It would be foolish to assume that a startup is only building noise through SEO, as most of the time that isn't the case.
So while setting yourself an ambitious goal for content creation, make sure it is attainable, and adheres to a schedule that is realistic. For some companies, this might be 2 blog posts per week. For another, it might be 50 blog posts per month. For another, it might be 1000 blog posts per week.
The final step to securing authority for your site is for other people to link to it. If your article is genuinely useful and engaging, this will come naturally.
There are plenty of services you can use to gather backlinks, but I would use these with extreme caution, as it is very often the territory of spammers. We've all seen the spammy answers on social media or in comments sections for pharmaceutical products or similar, the same person copying and pasting the same text with the same link over and over again. Often, they're doing this for link building, to promote the authority of a site.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work, and often results in sites getting penalised.
When you're just starting out, links from social media or from your clients' websites is a good way to establish a handful of credible backlinks. You can post on your own social media profiles and that still counts as a backlink.
The domain authority of a site establishes its reputation as a link referrer. If you have a link from someone like Forbes, or the New York Times, that will give your website a huge boost, as those sites have very high authority.
My advice with backlinks is that: if you create really good content, you will gather those links, so don't bend over backwards trying to get high quality backlinks. It can take a lot of effort to pitch to journalists to get a good link to your site, and even if you are featured in an article, there's no guarantee that they would allow a link to your website. (I've been featured in The Financial Times, for example, and they mentioned the name of my business but had a policy of not including a link to external websites on their own site, so I missed out on that valuable bit of digital real estate on that occasion!).
And when you've done all that...
16 Be patient
There's no getting away from the fact that SEO is an investment in the future of your business.
So when you've done all your content creation, keep an eye on what works, and simply keep creating the stuff that's working.
Every 3 months or so, take a look at the stats for the pages you've updated for SEO, and look for what's working well. Do more of that. Then rinse and repeat, but always keep creating. Volume and velocity are your friends.
17 Or you could just outsource it all...
And if that's what you decide to do, you know where to find me. :-)
My name's Claire and I’m an SEO and content strategy expert. I help startups and ambitious businesses improve their content, so that customers can find your website in search, and so that when they do, they convert.
I’m a former startup CEO, and I’ve worked for some of the world’s biggest publishers (Penguin Random House, Oxford University Press), as well as training with Google's in-house SEO team. I even built a website to attract 45k in organic search visitors/month. Drop me a line if you need help of any kind with SEO and content.
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