What is SEO and How Do I Get Started?
SEO stands for search engine optimization. Search engine optimization is the process or optimizing a website, app or other digital property to improve its visibility in search results. Let’s go over why this is important, before diving into the different types of SEO.
Why is SEO important?
SEO is important if you’re interested in driving traffic to your website (or app, Google Maps listing etc.). In the modern era that’s virtually every business and lots of individuals as well (e.g., artists, freelancers, influencers, celebrities etc.) Being found on Google is important to any individual or organization hoping to achieve brand recognition.
Think about the first think you do when you hear about something new, whether it’s a TV show or new product. Odds are you probably Google it or look it up on Amazon or TikTok. Which raises an important point. Although Google is the largest search engine in the world – it’s not the only one. And it’s important when doing SEO to consider what platforms your audience is most likely to use (and using data to confirm your theories).
Different Types of SEO
Most SEO best practices focus on getting a website to rank on Google, Bing and other traditional search engines. Website SEO is often broken down into 3 categories:
- On-page – optimizing web page content, meta data, URLs and internal links.
- Technical – ensuring the crawlability, rendering/understanding and indexation of a site’s pages by search engines.
- Off-page – increasing the number and quality of backlinks, mentions, citations and other outside elements that are used by search engines for ranking purposes.
But website SEO isn’t the only type of SEO that exists. For every platform out there with a search feature, there is a type of SEO. Outside of traditional website SEO there is:
- Image SEO
- Google & Bing image search results
- Video SEO
- YouTube & Vimeo
- Ecommerce SEO
- Google & Apple Maps
- App store optimization (ASO)
- App Store & Google Play
- Voice search
- Amazon Alexa
SEO usually focuses on increasing visibility, traffic and conversions (whether it be sales, leads, newsletter signups), but it can also include changing appearances/branding and preventing junk from showing up in search results.
But before we get too distracted on SEO’s more exotic forms, let’s cover how to get started with basic website SEO.
How to start doing SEO
Focusing on crawlability is a great first step. Search engines won’t know how great your content and meta data is if it can’t crawl it. One key step that many SEO how-to guides overlook is researching the platform you’re optimizing on. If a website is built using ReactJS it’s going to a lot different than optimizing a WordPress site. This basic step in the discovery process is crucial when formulating an effective SEO strategy. Knowing the basic capabilities, functionality and limitations of your platform will help you ensure crawlability and indexability.
Next doing keyword research (learn how to do keyword using free tools) and following basic on-page SEO best practices for meta data (such as title tags, meta descriptions and canonicals) will help users and search engines understand your content. Imagine reading a book without a title or watching a video without a description – these basic pieces of information are surprisingly helpful for people and machines when trying to understand content.
Getting started with on-page SEO
Here’s a quick summary of on-page SEO best practices:
- Content – Write unique content that is helpful to users incorporating keywords in a natural way
- Title tags – Write unique title tags for every page and keep them under 60 characters with priority keywords frontloaded (and the brand name at the end more often than not)
- Meta descriptions – Write unique meta descriptions for every page enticing users to click (with a call to action using top keywords) with around 155 characters (140-165 is the range I try to stay within)
- Headings – Use an H1 tag for each page headline (more often than not there should only be one per page) and use H2s & H3s for sub-topics; nesting them accordingly.
- URLs – Use URLs that are easy to ready for users while also reflecting the hierarchy of your website.
- Image alt text – Add alternative text to images describing the image (should be about the length of a meta description; 140-165 characters).
(Check out the learning resources below for additional information about optimizing on-page SEO elements.)
Technical SEO basics & next steps
Then prioritize setting up technical SEO basics like robots.txt and sitemap.xml files in place will make it much easier for search engines to crawl and index content that matters.
Sitemap.xml files are simply an XML document that list out all (or most) of the pages on a website. Many content management systems (CMS) and website building apps automatically create sitemap.xml files. Learn more about how to build and submit a sitemap.
The robots.txt is sort of like a traffic cop for bot like search engine crawlers. As a best practice, they shouldn’t block (via disallow directives) any pages that are important for SEO (i.e., you want appearing on Google). Additionally, the robots.txt should contain a reference to your sitemap.xml. Check out this robots.txt guide from Conductor to learn more.
Once you have a solid SEO foundation you can create content, analyze its performance and continue to optimize accordingly.
How to start doing SEO summary
Here’s a quick summary of steps to take when doing SEO for your own website:
- Make sure search engines can crawl and index your content
- Set up Google Search Console (GSC)
- Keyword research
- Create quality content
- Optimize on-page SEO
Make sure to check out Top SEO Tips for Small Business if you’re a small business owner looking to get started in SEO.
Things to avoid as a beginner SEO
Avoid trying to boil the ocean and fix all your SEO problems overnight. Even the best websites have tons of SEO issues and opportunities. As a beginner you should also make sure to avoid:
- Violating search engine guidelines and engaging in blackhat SEO (such as buying backlinks, mass producing web pages solely for search etc.)
- Accidentally blocking crawling/indexing via robots.txt directives or meta robots noindex tags
- Publishing lots of low quality and/or AI generated content
- Duplicating content (and/or websites) in hopes of increasing your chances of being found
- Getting hung up on that ONE THING you/your developer/platform can’t do SEO-wise; unless it’s completely blocking crawling/indexing, just move on and come back later
SEO learning resources
I hope you found this article helpful, but if you’re still eager to learn more about SEO there’s tons of great resources. Here’s some of my favorite SEO learning resources:
- Moz Learning Center
- SEO Starter Guide by Google
- How to Learn SEO by Ahrefs
- How to Learn SEO by Semrush
And I’m personally not a huge fan of SEO books because they’re often out-of-date before getting published. But if you prefer learning by reading a physical book (I often do) The Art of SEO is probably the most reputable SEO book on the market. Avoid any SEO book or learning materials that mention tricking or outsmarting Google (or YouTube, TikTok etc.). More often than not they are thinly veiled scams.
Staying up-to-date on SEO
Here’s some of my favorite news outline and resources for staying up-to-date on the SEO landscape:
- Google Search Central Blog
- Google Search Status Dashboard
- Search Engine Roundtable
- Search Engine Land
- Search Engine Journal
SEO is not about alligator parties & Lambos
Despite what some pundits and journalists might think, SEO isn’t about hosting alligator parties and buying Lamborghinis (at least not always). Are there some shady companies out there? Absolutely. Like an industry SEO has its bad actors. But like any investment, doing your research and working with reputable individuals is sure to be your best bet. Hopefully understanding what SEO and how it works helps you in the process.