Grasping Searching Engine Optimization (SEO) as a creator can be frustrating. Backlinks, nofollow, dofollow, SERP results, guest blogging. Too many things, too little time. That's why I've written this guide about how to get started with the basics of SEO and grow your audience from search engine traffic.
I'm a software engineer and not a marketing guru but I've previously done research and studied both search engines, Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing (NLP) for my MSc so I know a few things about the general principles that drives search results. This is not a scientific guide and it won't make you an expert, but you'll learn enough to get mighty results. Let's get started.
Backlinks are basically links that other people have put on their website that links to you. There are mainly two kinds of backlinks. Normal
nofollow links. Normal backlinks will give you SEO juice while
nofollow won't give you as much.
Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is the page that a search engine returns based on a search query. Basically this is the list of results you see.
The more backlinks and good quality content your site has, the more juice you'll get. Juice is like momentum. Once you have some, you'll more easily rank on new keywords. Therefore, it's more difficult to start from scratch then working on established sites when it comes to SEO.
How does Google find your website?
Generally speaking, they will find you, eventually. Once they do, they will basically navigate around your website and follow links into each page. That is, unless you tell them explicitly not to.
You can help Google a bit by submitting a sitemap which is basically a simple file containing links to all your pages
How does Google decide who goes first?
Short answer: only Google knows.
Longer answer: The algorithm they use are often proprietary and constantly changes but the original idea of PageRank which, I believe, still reflects how search works today is that they build a link profile of your website and together with analysing the content they will rank you on the result page.
Now, let's look at how these two work.
What goes into this profile is how many links you get, also called incoming links or backlinks. Another thing is how many sites you link to, also called outgoing links.
Generally speaking, you have a high quality website if you get a lot of incoming links, but don't have too much outgoing links so it looks like a setup / link farm. Furthermore, incoming links from high quality websites are better. Of course, today there's more things than this that affects the profile. But this is the general idea people still work with today.
Content is the second part of the ranking mechanism. Historically, search engines have tried to match keywords, or part of keywords directly with your content or meta tags. It still does, sometimes, but today it's way more sophisticated than that. While keywords still matter, search engines like Google now tries to translate your search query into a search intent. Basically, they try to figure out what you're looking for, based on what you typed.
And guess what. The same is done to your content. They will determine, using various algorithms and machine learning, what your page is about. It will then be compared and matched against the user's query to be given a score.
The link profile of your domain (your entire site), the url (the specific page) and your content will be given a score. This score is basted on how well it matches the search query and will be compared to other pages and ranked accordingly.
Different SEO strategies to improve your ranking
There are a lot of different SEO strategies out there. I'll cover the main ones that are popular today. This is long-form, short-form, fat head and long tail. I'll also give a brief introduction to other things you can do to rank higher.
Pick your strategy based on your ability to rank on the front page. Think about it, how often do you even go to the second page of search results? In fact, only about 10% of clicks happens after the first page.
Long-form content strategy is basically focused on writing longer articles. Generally speaking it's anything that's more than 1000 words. Like this blogpost. Some people believe that long form content generates more traffic because Google favours it and that it's likely to rank for more keywords.
Another thing on long-form content is that it's a great way to create valuable information for your audience. To teach a subject, in other words. Many believe this is a great strategy for smaller brands to compete with larger companies on SEO. Quality over quantity.
Short-form content strategy is posts less than 1000 words. That sounds easy, doesn't it. So should you write long-form or short-form? It depends. You should adjust to the topic. Does it need 1000+ words or will 500 do? If you're writing about a topic that only requires 500 words to cover. That's fine. Sometimes you need less, sometimes more and Google is pretty smart nowadays.
Long tail and answering questions
Long tail content strategies targets the "long tail" of the search volume. This means going after less frequent keywords with less search volume and the bundling them together, rather than just a few flagship keywords. For example, trying to rank for something like "how to increase open rates in email marketing" compared to just "email marketing".
The graph below illustrates the long tail (yellow). Notice the area of the yellow part compared to the green part. Long tail keywords make up about 70% of all searches. It's a popular approach among creators and early stage startups as there's less competition in general.
A common approach to long tail content is to answer questions and write content like "How to do X with Y". You can use tools like Answerthepublic to find questions people are searching for on different topics. This should give you some good ideas about topics to write about.
The fat head approach is conversely about ranking on flagship keywords like "email marketing". These keywords make up for about 30% of searches and generally have quite high competition. You'll have to generate a pretty vast amount of backlinks and have a good link profile to rank high on these. If you're going to pursue this, make sure there is some volume on the keyword that makes it worthwhile.
Guest blogging means that you're writing for another website's blog.
It's a popular strategy for SEO because normally the owner of the site you're writing for allows you to include a backlink to your site. This will give you SEO juice which is needed to rank better. Especially if that site has a good link profile and ranks high on Google already.
There are other ways to get backlinks too. Mainly, if you've made something great, people will talk about it and link back to you. But guest blogging can be a helpful boost too. Especially when you're just getting started.
You can submit your website to different directories like Product Hunt. This will give you backlinks, allthough usually of the
nofollow kind. More importantly, if people like your stuff, it will give you traffic. And guess what, for good websites, traffic eventually turns into backlinks.
How does SEO tools work?
SEO can be quite a mouthfull. There are some tools that can make your life easier. They won't automatically give you better results but they can give you ideas for content and improvements that may work. For example, they can uncover ideas about content that has a low level of competition but a lot of traffic.
Another thing is that they can show what keywords your competition rank for, their most popular pages and so on. Good tools can also intersect that with your website and find content gaps and ideas.
Some SEO tools can also audit your website and give you insights into how to improve your markup and content for better ranking. Basically these are improvements to help search engines better understand your website. It's worth looking into, as it usually translates to better user experience too.
Useful SEO tools for creators and free alternatives
There are a lot of different keyword research tools out there. If you have the budget, I recommend giving ahrefs a go. Otherwise you can also look into more budget-friendly alternatives like Answerthepublic and Wincher.
If you don't have a budget at all, you can still use Google keyword research tool for Google Ads for free. It'll give you the search volume and difficulty to rank for the keywords you search for.
For competition research you can use ahrefs to see your competitors best ranking content and keywords. I haven't yet found anything that's of better value for your money.
Another way to do competition research for free is to search for things like
site:example.com which will show all the websites on
example.com . Now you can navigate to that site and see what keywords they use.
There are many tools to audit your website. These are basically tools that looks into how you can improve your page speed, markup and content, so it ranks better.
Google's own PageSpeed insights is free and pretty good. I've also used ahrefs page audit running on a weekly schedule. This is also free and included in their suite of webmaster tools.
You can use tools like ahrefs and Wincher to track your ranking for a selection of keywords. This is a great way to make sure you stay on top once you've got there.
You can also use Google search console for free to see how many impressions and clicks you get from different keywords. It'll also give you an overview so you can see impressions and clicks over time.
No gimmicks, no tricks
Sometimes I cringe when reading blogpost because I can feel that the author did it solely for SEO. Titles that just scream "please rank my page" and content that doesn't really make sense for their audience. Don't do that.
Another thing is that some people will look for ways into tricking Google. This is not a good strategy as you can, and probably will, get penalized for it eventually.
Be sincere, create quality content that people are looking for. Backlinks and readers will eventually come around. Play the long game. The internet doesn't need more low quality content.
Own your name
One of the most important things in SEO is to be visible to people that are looking explicitly for you. If they type in your name, make sure that you're the top result.
Your content should basically make people talk about you so other folks eventually type your name into Google. That's the end game. Make sure you show up.