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SEO 101: A novice's guide to search engine optimization (part 1)

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You’ve probably heard the term SEO before. Maybe you’ve even done a little research and found it overwhelming or confusing to parse out. You get that it’s important, but don’t understand why or how to do it.

Luckily for you, we’ve done the research. We’re here to break it down to a manageable level, to help you get a grasp on what SEO is, why it’s necessary, and how you can apply it to your website. This topic, though, is too big for just one blog post. This is the first of several entries we’ll make on SEO, taking you from the basic to the intricate.


First, some definitions.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It refers to qualities of your website that increase traffic and conversion. There are lots of smaller terms that have to do with this, including…

White- and Black-Hat SEO are the two general kinds you can perform. White-Hat refers to best practices and rule-abiding actions, while Black-Hat refers to techniques intended to trick search engines. This doesn’t mean Black Hat can’t work, but as Moz points out it can result in sanctions on your website and often has troubling ethical implications.

SERPs, or Search Engine Result Pages, where (hopefully) a link to your website will appear. They also contain SERP features, which are everything other than the links (think the answer boxes that appear at the top of Google searches).

User intent is what the customer is looking for when they use the search engine. Your SEO should help search engines quickly provide what your customer is looking for.

There are many other terms that have to do with the practice, but the terms above are all you’ll need to understand the contents of this blog post. The rest are for a future entry.


What does it do? Why should I do it?

There are millions of pages on the internet. There are too many, in fact, for search engines such as Google to have their employees index them manually—no matter the size of their workforce, the process would be inefficient and overly extensive. Instead, search engines use bots to ‘crawl’ the internet, going from page to page on each site, collecting data, and adding it to an index. The index is then algorithmically analyzed to generate SERPs for each user query.

Search engine optimization does exactly what it says—optimizing your page for those bots, so that they can collect the most accurate information on the contents of your page. This information is then in turn used to show your page only to those users who are most likely to find it useful and interact with it.


Do I outsource or do it myself?

It all depends on your needs! You might be able to do basic work yourself, but it’s important to know when you need help from an expert.

As Britney Muller for Moz Pro points out,

“If you end up looking for expert help, it's important to know that many agencies and consultants "provide SEO services," but can vary widely in quality. Knowing how to choose a good SEO company can save you a lot of time and money, as the wrong SEO techniques can actually harm your site more than they will help.”

We’ll go over the pros and cons in more detail in a future post, but the basic conundrum is whether you’d rather spend the money to have someone else do it, or the time it takes to research and do it yourself.


How do I begin?

Should you decide to do your own SEO, the first and easiest step is keyword research. This means figuring out the words people will enter into search engines to find content like yours.

There are many free online tools you can use for this. Start with the first words that come to mind when you think of your business. If you run a record store, it might be “music.” If you run a bridal boutique, you might try “weddings.”

Dave Davies has written a great and comprehensive guide to building keyword lists using these tools. It may look like a process, but that should motivate you to include as many relevant keywords in your list as possible—so you only have to do it once!


Google Guidelines

Google will automatically list your site, but good SEO will enable it to connect you with the audience that most fits your product. Google has a guide to help you match your SEO to their engine—we’ve selected a few key points, so that you understand the depth of the undertaking before you begin:

Google uses automated crawlers to index websites—performing SEO on your site will help the bots get the most accurate information about it, so that Google can show it to the people most likely to become customers.

The best way to go about this is through hidden files on your website: things like sitemaps, robots.txt files, and others—for all of which Google has in-depth tutorials.

Organize your site’s pages into a hierarchy based on content—which pages should be the home pages of large categories, and which should be subsidiary beneath them?

Make your site interesting, useful, and easy to navigate. Trim the fat—make sure only the best of what you have is visible. Make it clear how to get from one place to another. If a person would have trouble with it, chances are a bot will too.

In general, you’ll want to avoid black-hat SEO for Google. That means no hidden lists of irrelevant keywords at the bottoms of your pages, no extra unnecessary pages for the sole purpose of more frequent listing, etc. Remember, search engines want you to succeed—and they can help you if you work by their rules.


So now you know the basics. In a future post, we’ll go into a little more detail about the steps of and best practices for SEO, using advice from trusted voices in the field. After that, we’ll walk you through the pros and cons of doing your own SEO vs. hiring a professional. Until then, happy optimization!


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