You may have heard of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) before. It’s one of those buzzwords in the technological zeitgeist at the moment, and for good reason: businesses are finding more and more that their sales are heavily dependent on their SEO practices.
You might say, “I’ve never even heard of SEO, and my sales are fine.”
But imagine what they could be with a little bit of effort.
What is SEO?
SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is a term used to describe the process of making improvements to the quality or content of a website in order to make them more visible to search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.
Imagine you’re looking to purchase something—in this article, we’ll use books as an example. You’d likely open up a search engine and type the words “buy books online,” or “where to buy books,” or perhaps something more specific, like “buy books online free shipping.”
SEO practices, among other “ranking” factors, determine which website will appear as #1 in the search engine results page (or, SERP).
In the example search of “buy books online” in the UK, we received this as the top result:
- First and foremost, the top result for this search is an established brand in the UK (a household name, even), which gives them more “authority” in the eyes of Google’s algorithm. A brand that users know and trust holds more authority than a lesser-known site.
- Second, you’ll notice that the words in our search term, “buy books online,” can be found in the title tag of the website, as well as in the site’s meta description and category titles (we’ll explain these terms in Part 2).
When you improve the SEO on your own website, you’re essentially making your content more search-engine-friendly. This will drive more traffic to your website and improve the user experience, which will, in turn, help your website be more visible to search engine users.
Let’s break down some SEO basics to help you get started on your optimisation journey!
SEO Basics Part 1: Keywords
What are keywords?
Remember when we typed “buy books online” into our search engine? In this instance, our search query is considered a keyword.
Keywords are one of the most critical facets of SEO, and they’re also among the easiest to implement. They have two parts: the actual word(s) themselves (called “anchor text”), and an accompanying link.
Keywords are words or phrases that point directly to a specific URL or set of URLs on your website, such as the landing page, a category page, or a product. If you’re a bookseller, you might use keywords like “fiction books,” or “graphic novels.” When written in the text of your website, in category descriptions, product descriptions, or other text, the anchor text “fiction books” would be linked to the appropriate fiction category URL.
If this sounds confusing, fear not: we’ll break it down even further.
How do keywords work?
When you type a keyword into a search engine, the search engine then looks for websites that use that keyword. Websites that the search engines deem “most relevant” are ranked highest in the SERP.
Relevance is determined by a site’s SEO practices, on top of other factors (we’ll delve more into this later).
Search engines are built using algorithms—not human judgement. They require us to tell them exactly what a page is about to understand the page’s relevance for a particular search query, and the best way to do this is using keywords.
Essentially, if you want Google to know that a particular category on your website is for biographies, for example, the best way to do this is to build up “internal links”—or, links to other pages on your website.
This means that elsewhere on your website, wherever it’s relevant, you should strive to use the “biographies” anchor text and link to the appropriate category. This gives search engines context about the page and builds up its authority.
For example, because biographies fall under the “non-fiction books” category, you might write this in your description for the “non-fiction books” category:
Whether they’re biographies, memoirs, or any other type of true story, non-fiction books can be just as immersive and thrilling as the best fiction novel. Here, we have a selection of must-read non-fiction books, including best-sellers and works from debut authors.
Here, you’ll see that we’ve underlined several keywords, which would each be considered “anchor text” and linked to a specific category page on a bookseller’s website. The linking of these keywords helps search engines to better understand that biographies and memoirs are considered non-fiction books in the context of your store, thus adding to search engines’ understanding of your site.
The more internal links you add to give these search engines context, the more “relevant” your pages will become in SERPs.
All keywords have their own difficulty score—meaning how easy or hard it is to rank in search engines for a given keyword. Moreover, each search engine measures difficulty differently, and you’ll find that there are different keyword difficulty scores depending on whether a user is on mobile or desktop, which search engine they’re using, and which country they’re searching from.
There are various tools you can use to measure keyword difficulty.
Still, while keyword difficulty can be complex, there are ways even a beginner can use difficulty scores to their advantage. Focusing on building up links for keywords with a lower difficulty score in general will lead to your site beginning to rank on SERPs, which will contribute to your site’s authority in the eyes of search engines. Having this authority will make it easier for future words to rank in SERPs.
Short- & Long-tail Keywords
There are two types of keywords: short-tail and long-tail keywords.
Short-tail keywords generally consist of a simple word or phrase, such as “buy books online.” These can be improved through the previously mentioned internal links method, but are more difficult to rank for in search engines due to higher levels of competition between websites.
Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, are longer and more specific search queries, such as “where can I buy non-fiction books online,” which receive fewer search queries but higher user engagement. These are easier to rank for in SERPs and are therefore a great tool for improving your website’s authority.
Essentially, fewer user searches contain long-tail keywords, which makes them easier to rank for because there is less competition. And when users do search a long-tail keyword, they’re more likely to click the links found on SERPs than those searching short-tail keywords. Research shows that long-tail keywords lead to roughly 70% of all page views from SERPs, so these are certainly worth investing time in if you’re just getting started with SEO.
You can easily integrate long-tail keywords into your online store by using them in your title and header tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.), page text, category and product titles, and so on. Integrating these keywords into your site is an easy way to give search engines the context they need to place your site in SERPs.
Unfortunately, you can’t just chuck a load of keywords onto your website and call it a day. Search engines penalise “keyword stuffing,” which is a poor SEO practice involving overcrowding a page with keywords in order to rank in SERPs.
Not only will this not help you rank higher—it’ll mean that your site is interpreted by search engines as spammy or low-quality content, which will lead to lower rankings in SERPs.
To avoid keyword stuffing, we recommend linking a keyword only once per page (search engines generally only count internal links once anyway), and use the keyword anchor text in your content only when it feels natural. Your keywords should make up less than about 5% of your total word count on any given page.
A Lesson on Anchor Text: Don’t Link “Click Here”
In the same vein as keyword stuffing, many people who are unfamiliar with SEO practices may consider the following to be a perfectly adequate use of linking:
To read our latest blog article on the best fiction books of 2022, click here!
In reality, this is a poor SEO practice which should be avoided. While we’ve likely all seen this type of link before, it fails to promote good SEO for one major reason: the anchor text doesn’t say anything about the link, thus invalidating the use of the link in the first place.
If someone were to ask Google, for instance, what “click here” means contextually, the engine would have a tough time giving a concrete definition, since “click here” has been used as anchor text for every type of link under the sun. Here, the writer has failed to give any context as to what the link is pointing to. This rule doesn’t just apply to the words “click here,” but this is the most common anchor text mistake.
A better way to link, in this instance, would be as follows:
Got a hunger for more great fiction? Check out our article on the Best Fiction Books of 2022!
Here, we’ve linked the actual title of the article, which should contain your focus keyword, and will thus be a good enough indicator for search engines to understand the context of the link.
When it comes to anchor text for your links, you should only be linking keywords (including short- and long-tail keywords) which directly relate to the content of the page you’re linking to. Therefore, it’s best to avoid linking text that says things like “buy now,” “found here,” and so on.
SEO Basics Part 2: On-Page Optimisation
Once you’ve got the concept of keywords down, it’s time to move on to on-page SEO basics. Again, the purpose of this is to ensure that your pages rank in SERPs.
Let’s delve into some on-page SEO basics.
So, you’re familiar with keywords in the broader context of your website. How they work on individual pages is slightly more specialised, though the same general rules apply.
Essentially, individual pages on your website should have a singular “focus keyword,” as in the keyword you’d like to rank for, plus what’s called a “basket” of related keywords that give your focus keyword more context.
In the case of a product page for a fiction novel, for instance, your focus keyword would be the name of the book (the product title), and your basket of terms would contain relevant keywords such as fiction, novel, the name of the author, and the genres the book fits into (thriller, romance, drama, etc.). You should strive to include these keywords in the content of your page with their accompanying links.
Title Tags (a.k.a. Meta Titles)
Hands down, the most impactful place you can put your focus keyword is in your title tag (otherwise known as meta title). Think of title tags as your search listing’s headline.
Note that title tags are different from page titles, which appear as H1 tags at the top of your page. A title tag is a meta property that can be found at the top of your browser window beside the site’s favicon in the tab or toolbar. This is part of your page’s source code, which is read by search engines to determine what content is on your page.
In the above example, you’ll notice that the title tag matches the headline of the search listing from the beginning of this article.
Including your focus keyword along with any other related terms from your “basket” will improve the visibility of your page in search engines. Remember not to over-stuff keywords here, as search engines generally only display the first 55-60 characters in any given title tag. It’s best to use your focus keyword as close to the beginning of your title tag as possible to improve the “clickability” of your link and to assert the keyword’s relevance to search engines.
If the title tag is your search listing’s headline, your meta description is the tagline. When your website appears in search results, the title tag will appear as a larger highlighted text, while the meta description will appear as the smaller text underneath. Search engines use these, on top of title tags, to determine the content of a given page.
As with title tags, meta descriptions should have your focus keyword somewhere towards the beginning of the content. In addition, you should pay attention to having “clickable” content here—text that will drive more visitors to your site, such as “Free UK shipping over £20” or “Same-day dispatch.”
In meta descriptions, you have more characters to work with. You should focus on explaining the content of the page using natural-sounding copy, while also integrating your keywords effectively.
Anything on your page that’s encapsulated in an H1, H2, or H3 tag is an excellent spot for optimisation, as these headings are used by search engines to create an outline of the content on your page.
Search engines take header tags into account when indexing a page, as these headings (when used correctly) break down your page’s content into bite-sized, individual segments. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make your headings as SEO-friendly as possible.
This means incorporating your keywords (both focus and related terms) into your headings.
Pro Tip: Headings are an excellent place to utilise the previously-mentioned long-tail keywords, especially ones in the form of a question! Using commonly searched questions in the headings on your FAQ page, for example, will boost the SEO on that page. Plus, an FAQ leaves plenty of room for keyword linking and allows for a greater number of header tags!
Page Content – Body Text
The actual written content of your page is incredibly important. The writing should sound natural, and the tone should be suited to your target audience.
Generally speaking, search engines love content—the more unique, the better! In fact, search engines often penalise “duplicate content”—or, content that appears in multiple places on the internet. For this reason, it’s best to write original copy for your site (and lots of it!) and not have the same text on multiple pages.
That being said, in addition to having unique, engaging, and natural-sounding content, you’ll want to take some more aspects into account when writing your pages to be more SEO-friendly.
- Body Text Length: There’s no golden rule for how long a page should be—but it’s best to shoot for at least 600 words per page. This gives search engines plenty of context and unique content to search through when indexing your page. Search engines won’t penalise you for having a few pages with 50-200 words here and there, but it’s a good idea to bulk up the majority of your pages with rich, unique content if you can—especially pages that you want to gain more traffic, such as product pages and blog posts!
- User Experience: Search engines are increasingly favouring pages with better user experience in their SERPs. In short, this means that the easier your site is to navigate for users, the more favourably it’ll be looked upon by search engines. When it comes to user experience and page content, you’ll want to focus on writing concise sentences that get your point across—plus, keeping your paragraphs short will make them easier to digest for the reader. Having succinct text interspersed with unique images and broken up under relevant headings will make for a better user experience on your page.
Image Alt Attributes
Alt attributes are descriptions of an image which are usually hidden but can be found in your page’s source code. They’re a type of HTML element used to give alternate information about an image if it doesn’t load or if a user can’t view it. And for users with a visual impairment, this is the only description they have of your image. For this reason, it’s best to provide a thorough, accurate description of the image in the alt attributes.
Alt attributes also contribute to how much search traffic you receive from image searches. They’re the primary way that search engines sort through the many images they have indexed to determine what’s most relevant. So, while you’ll want to consider the user when writing these alt attributes, you should also use this space to take advantage of best SEO practice to increase results from image searches.
It’s a good idea to use your focus keyword, related keywords, or a variation on a long-tail keyword in your image alt attribute, while also giving an honest visual description. Don’t try to keyword stuff here—otherwise, you risk taking away from the all-important user experience.
The most important part about image alt attributes is to ensure that you’re being thorough and detailed for the visually-impaired users on your site.
SEO Basics Part 3: Technical SEO Best Practices
The field of SEO is constantly evolving as technology does. Still, some of the more “traditional” SEO basics—the ones focusing on the technical back-end side of your website—are still incredibly valuable and should not be disregarded.
Page speed falls under the “user experience” umbrella. It’s another of the many facets that, when improved for the user, will increase your page’s visibility on search engines.
Search engines are placing increasing emphasis on websites with faster loading times. Google even offers a useful page speed tool which gives you real-time feedback on the speed of your website alongside helpful suggestions for improving your score.
One of the easiest ways to increase page speed is to optimise, convert, or compress any large image files displayed on your website, where possible. PNGs, for example, have larger file sizes than WEBP images—meaning that WEBP files tend to load faster than PNGs, even when the image quality is the same. Of course, you should ensure that high-priority images like your product photos remain high-res—but in the case of banners, ads, animations, and icons, converting to low-res formats with smaller file sizes will have a remarkable impact on the overall speed of your website.
In addition, you should remove any excess or unused code from your page, such as stylesheets for fonts you’re not using.
The future (and present) of online shopping is on mobile phones. Without a mobile-friendly web layout, you risk losing a massive percentage of customers who would rather browse a site more conducive to their handheld device.
Now, while this may only affect your mobile rankings, this is the largest growing sector online. In some areas, mobile traffic far outweighs desktop traffic—so it’s pivotal that your website can keep up with mobile devices.
Google even has a handy free tool for making your website more mobile-friendly.
Redirections can have a massive impact on your website, for better or for worse.
Whenever you can avoid it, you should try to keep from moving your site’s content from one URL to another. For instance, if you have a page that is receiving a lot of search engine traffic, you’ll want to avoid changing the URL or moving the page’s content, unless you have a very strong business reason that will outweigh the loss in search engine traffic.
If you do need to move content or alter your URLs, you should make sure that you implement permanent redirects (301) to ensure the stability of your web traffic. That way, when your old URL is clicked in search engine results or in do-follow links, users won’t be directed to a page that has different content or no longer exists. Reliability is a very prominent factor when it comes to how search engines assess the trustworthiness of your website.
Changing your URL structure may create broken links, which can hurt your referral traffic and make it much more difficult for users to navigate your website. As such, it’s best to avoid altering your URLs.
By now, you should have a much better understanding of SEO basics, including the importance of good SEO practices, keywords, and on-page optimisation. You should also be better equipped to tackle the user experience on your site, and you should understand what not to do when it comes to SEO.
You don’t need surgical precision to get started with SEO—in fact, you’re probably already practising some SEO basics without even realising it.