What is SEO?
When it comes to growing your business online, there isn’t a more potent weapon to have in your marketing arsenal than SEO. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the most effective, cost-efficient, long-term strategy for attracting customers through the internet, so a well-designed SEO strategy should be the backbone of any serious digital marketing strategy.
Now, that being said, there’s so much information out there on SEO, with a lot of it offering conflicting advice, that it can be overwhelming if you’re just getting started.
So, the question is, just where do you start?
In an effort to help business owners who are just starting their SEO, as well as those who’ve already begun – only to find themselves stuck, we’ve created this comprehensive guide to SEO.
- What SEO is and how search engines work
- The difference between SEO and SEM
- The pillars of a successful SEO strategy
- Which SEO techniques to focus on – and which to avoid
- What EAT stands for and what it means for your website
- About common SEO myths and how much truth is behind them
- How to tell when your SEO is actually working
- About highly-functional tools for helping you carry out your SEO strategy
So, without further ado, let’s get to the bottom of what SEO is and how you can develop an effective SEO strategy that will attract your ideal customer or client to your website in greater numbers.
What Is SEO And How Does It Work?
Let’s kick things off by starting at the very beginning: by defining just exactly what SEO is and explaining how it works.
What Is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and is the process of designing and improving your website so it appears higher in your target audience’s organic search engine ranking pages (SERPs).
However, this doesn’t involve doing any one thing: SEO is a collection of techniques that you can apply to each of your website’s pages to make it more visible to search engines so they display them to users when they type in particular search terms.
What Is the Purpose Of SEO?
The purpose of SEO is to make your website as visible as possible to people who are looking for the products or services that you offer. By taking the various steps to optimise the pages that comprise your website, you’ll appear higher in a potential customer’s SERPs, leading to more of them clicking through to your site. As a result, your site will receive more visitors, generate more leads, and, ultimately, more customers or clients – increasing your business’ bottom line.
One of the most oft-repeated stats on the internet – especially when it comes to digital marketing – is that roughly 75% of people never look past the first page of results when searching for something. However, that figure rises to over 90% when it comes to people who don’t look past the second page of results!
As a result, unsurprisingly, businesses that make it onto the first page of SERPs receive the vast majority of web traffic. On Google, for example, which handles over 90% of search engine traffic, sites on the front page receive over 70% of search traffic – with some estimates placing the figure at over 90%! So, to look at it from that angle, the purpose of SEO is to get your business onto that all-important first page of results so it gets a slice of all that web traffic.
How Does SEO Work?
A search engine’s objective is to return webpages that are most relevant to the word or phrase that a user typed into it, which is called a search term.
Now, let’s say, for example, that someone types in the search term “accountants Brisbane”: they’d be looking for an accountancy firm in or around Brisbane and would expect results in line with that, i.e., a list of accountancy firms in the Brisbane area.
The search engine would then search its existing index of webpage addresses, known as uniform resource locators (URLs), for pages that it’s already decided are most relevant to that search term. Search engine companies determine what makes a webpage relevant according to their own criteria and turn them into an algorithm: an automated set of instructions by which the search engine checks, or crawls, pages and adds them to its index.
It’s then up to you, as the website’s owner, to design your site in such a way that makes it appear relevant to search engines for a user’s specific search terms.
There is a big caveat, however: the algorithm by which search engines rank and index webpages is kept under wraps. Better still, to consistently provide the most relevant results, and to combat sites that attempt to cheat the system, search engine algorithms frequently change. Fortunately, however, search engines will publicise changes to their guidelines. They’ll never tell you how their algorithm works exactly but, rather, what they’re focusing on in terms of ranking factors and what, subsequently, you should focus on.
This is what makes SEO a long-term marketing strategy, as opposed to a quick fix. It takes consistent effort, and a little trial and error, to see what works, which is why many companies opt to outsource it to digital marketing companies or SEO agencies. It’s also why SEO isn’t a one-time thing – which we’ll get more into later on in this guide.
How Does Search Work?
Before we continue, let’s delve a little deeper into how search engines actually work. More specifically, how they find, arrange, and, ultimately, present web pages to users. By having an appreciation of what’s going on under a search engine’s hood, you’ll better understand how the optimisation process works and, perhaps, why some of your web pages aren’t appearing in search engine results pages (SERPs) altogether.
Search engines work through three primary functions: crawling, indexing, and ranking.
- Crawling: This is the discovery stage during which search engines send out a team of ‘bots’, known as crawlers or spiders, because they search the web, to find new and updated webpages.
- Indexing: This is where the search engines store and organise the content found by bots during the crawling stage. Each new webpage is added to the search engine’s index: a huge database of discovered URLs and it’ll be eligible to be displayed in a user’s SERPs.
- Ranking: This is the stage where the results within the index are ordered, from most relevant to least, according to the search engine’s criteria. With the first page of their SERPs containing the most relevant results and them decreasing in relevance on every subsequent page. This is why the vast majority of people are reluctant to go past page 2 of their SERPs.
Another element that’s central to how search works, and an important aspect of SEO is the concept of links. It’s important to link the pages of your site together properly so search engines, as well as potential customers, can find their way around it easily. Crawlers start by looking at a few webpages and then following links to find new URLs. By hopping along a path of links like this, crawlers can find new content and add it to their index.
Another way that links are important to SEO is that search engines use them to determine the value, or ‘authority’, of a website. In the very early days of the web, search engines needed help deciding which sites were most trustworthy to rank them. Counting the number of links pointing to any given site turned out to be an effective way of achieving this.
Eventually, this led Google to create PageRank, a core part of its ranking algorithm that estimates a page’s authority by calculating the quality and quantity of links pointing back to it. PageRank works under the assumption that the more relevant and trustworthy a page is, the more links it will have. Consequently, the higher the PageRank, the more link equity it has. More on this later.
SEO vs SEM
Now, you may have also heard of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and wondered how it’s different from SEO, so let’s take a moment to clear that up.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the practice of promoting your website on search engines, which includes both SEO and pay per click (PPC). So, put another way, SEO is a part of SEM.
Also, while we’re on the subject of PPC marketing, such as a Google Ads campaign, it’s an opportune time to mention that it can be a good complement to SEO: they are not mutually exclusive forms of digital marketing. Because it takes a while to start working and search engines periodically update their ranking algorithms, SEO is a long-term strategy. A PPC ad campaign, on the other hand, can help bring in more leads quickly, making it an effective marketing strategy to implement alongside SEO.
What Are the Pillars Of SEO?
SEO isn’t just one set of techniques or tactics; it’s composed of different parts – or pillars. The three pillars of any successful SEO strategy are:
- Website Optimisation (On-Page and Technical SEO)
- Content Optimisation
- Digital PR (Off-Page SEO)
Let’s take a deep dive into each pillar or SEO.
1) Website Optimisation (On-Page and Technical SEO)
The first pillar of SEO is website optimisation, which refers to optimising the design of your site to increase its search engine ranking. Website optimisation is composed of two elements: on-page SEO and technical SEO.
On-page SEO refers to everything that can be done on each of your web pages to improve your site’s search engine ranking. These are the aspects that you, as the site owner, are most in control of – and are what comes to mind for most people when they think of SEO.
Examples of on-page SEO include:
Keywords are the search terms that someone will enter when looking for a product or service. The search engine will use these keywords to decide which web pages to display in the user’s SERPS. As a result, these keywords should feature within the content on your webpages, in the right places and quantity.
Now, it’s crucial to remember that as you target particular keywords to rank well for your target audience’s search terms, your competitors will be targeting them too. Because of this, you’ll often have to get creative, which is where the concept of long-tail keywords comes in.
The most popular keywords, known as the head, make up 30% of search terms. In contrast, less popular terms account for the remaining 70%: these keywords are known as the long tail.
Long-tail keywords are more specific search terms that users type in to look for products and services. For example, let’s say you have an online store that sells shoes. “Ladies shoes” is a pretty common term that lots of sites will compete for, while something like “ladies brown leather high heels” is an example of a long-tail keyword.
Make sure the page’s URL, or address, features the keywords you want it to be found for and is related to the page’s content.
- Site Navigation
The easier your site is to navigate, the easier it’ll be for search engine crawlers to index and rank your pages and discover new content on your site. Good navigation is achieved through well-placed internal links that take visitors to different pages within your site. Best of all, a well-designed site makes it easier for visitors to find what they’re looking for and, ultimately, purchase from you.
- Page Title
Give each web page an appropriate and relevant title that describes the content on that page. The page title should contain the same keywords as the content, signaling to both the search engine and users that the page is relevant to their search.
- Headings and Subheadings
Each page should have a series of headings and subheadings that split its content into easily readable sections. By making the content more manageable, you enhance your site’s user experience (UX) and each visitor is far likelier to get what they came for.
Metadata is defined as being ‘data about data’ and describes the content that visitors will find on a particular web page. The most important part of metadata is the meta description, which is what users see when a web page is displayed in their SERPS. The quality of your meta description plays a huge role in whether a visitor decides to click through to your site or visit one of your competitors instead.
Technical SEO is the process of improving your website to make sure that it meets the technical requirements of search engines to boost its ranking. Important elements of technical SEO include crawling, indexing, rendering, and your site’s speed and architecture.
Technical SEO is critical because it helps search engines crawl your site and rank it within their indices; all your high-quality content won’t have a chance to convert visitors into customers if they can’t find your site in the first place!
Many business owners tend to give little consideration to technical SEO because it seems complicated and outside their comfort zone. This is completely understandable – as technical SEO does require a certain level of comfort with technology– and a willingness to get real up close and personal with your website.
Consequently, if you’re going down the DIY route for your SEO, you’re better off hiring someone to handle your technical SEO for you, such as an SEO agency. Naturally, if you choose to enlist a professional to handle all your SEO, this will be one of the first things they’ll take care of.
However, the fact that technical SEO is so often overlooked is good news: as there’s a good chance of low-hanging fruit to pick – simple, yet effective ways of increasing your site’s visibility on search engines. Even better still, because it seems difficult, a good proportion of your competitors won’t even bother with it – and their loss will be your gain!
With those immense benefits in mind, here are the most important aspects of technical SEO:
Register Your Site with Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a powerful free tool with lots of functions and features that will help you improve your site’s SEO. For instance, Google Search Console allows you to submit your site for indexing and provides plenty of invaluable information that you can use to make improvements.
Also, maybe most importantly of all, Google Search Console allows you to see the results of crawling your website so you can determine which pages and resources aren’t showing up in Google’s index – and why. You can also generate link reports that reveal which sites are backlinking to your website, which pages receive the most links, which links within your site are broken, etc.
Create An XML Sitemap
An XML sitemap is a file that helps search engines understand your website’s structure – otherwise known as its architecture. A sitemap helps search engine crawlers determine where each page is within your site and discover new pages through links.
A sitemap contains useful information about each page on your site, including when it was last modified, its priority, and how often it’s updated. Fortunately, there are free tools that allow you to easily create XML sitemaps.
Ensure Your Site is Secured with HTTPS
HTTPS is the encrypted version of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that governs pages and resources on the internet. HTTPS tells visitors that a site has a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate and that data within it is safe and secure. Sometimes, if a site doesn’t have an SSL certificate, the user’s browser will throw up an off-putting message about the site potentially being unsafe – which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the visitor. Worse, it can even prevent the browser from loading the site altogether!
When it comes to SEO, however, Google announced, back in 2014 that sites with HTTPS were going to be favoured over non-secure ones in search results. This means there’s a chance your site won’t rank as highly as it should if you don’t have an SSL certificate properly installed.
Fortunately, this can be checked and solved without too much hassle. Firstly, check if you have an SSL certificate installed by seeing if your site’s URLs start with ‘HTTPS’ as opposed to ‘HTTP’. If not, you’ll have to install an SSL certificate, which is provided free by most hosting companies.
Speed Your Site Up
Because users prefer sites that load quickly, search engines also prefer it, and so site speed is an important ranking signal. If a page loads slowly, visitors are more likely to leave, which increases your site’s bounce rate: a metric that measures how many visitors leave after only viewing one page.
In fact, around 50% of visitors leave a site after only viewing a single page. As a result, the higher your bounce rate the lower your ranking, as search engines perceive your page as being irrelevant to the user’s search term.
In contrast, the longer a visitor spends on your site and the lower your bounce rate, the better it is for your ranking. Longer visits tell search engines that your site is relevant to the user’s search term. This is often referred to as the ‘long click’ and it helps your SEO.
There are several ways you can speed up your site:
- Upgrade your hosting
- Minimise the number of page redirects
- Compress image files
- Compress your web pages (this can be done with a tool called GZIP)
- Tidy up, or ‘minify’ your site’s code
Make Your Site Mobile-friendly
Because increasing numbers of users are mainly using mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, a responsive website is now more important than ever. In fact, we’ve now reached the point where over half of all internet traffic in Australia stems from mobile devices. Consequently, Google has adopted a ‘mobile first’ approach to indexing content, which means they’ve started to display the mobile version of a site in SERPs instead of its desktop version.
This means you have to make sure your site displays correctly to visitors, otherwise you’ll create a lousy first impression and fail to develop the trust necessary for them to purchase from you. Plus, as detailed above, if they leave your site quickly, this increases your bounce rate and signals to search engines that your site isn’t relevant for that search term, which could hurt your ranking.
You can test your site’s mobile-friendliness here – https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly
Add Structured Data
Structured data is code that you can add to your site to help search engines understand the content on it better. This then helps search engines index your site more effectively and provides more relevant results for a user’s search terms.
Better still, however, structured data also makes your content eligible for rich snippets: those detailed results that stand out at the top of search results pages. Perhaps the best example of a rich snippet is a recipe that not only displays the name of the recipe but an image of it, its ingredients, cooking time, etc.
The structured data you’ll need for your website depends on the specific products and services you offer, so search engines know how to display them correctly. You’ll find all the structured data code on Schema.org, a collaborative project set up by the biggest search engines. You can also use SEO tools and plugins to help add structured data to your site.
Fix Duplicate Content Problems
Duplicate content within your site has the potential to confuse search engines, as well as your visitors. Worse still, some forms of duplicate content could be an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings to attract more traffic. Consequently, search engines aren’t keen on it and urge site owners to correct their duplicate content issues.
Duplicate content can present problems for search engines in three main ways:
- They don’t know which version of the content to add to their indices
- They don’t know which version to rank for query results.
- They don’t know whether to attribute the link equity to one page or divide it between its various versions.
Here are three common causes for duplicate content:
1) URL Variations
Variations in a page’s URL can sometimes lead to duplicate content issues. Common reasons for URL variations include:
- URL parameters: Parameters can be added to URLs for several reasons. A common example, on eCommerce sites, is if there are slight variations in a product, such as colours and sizes for clothing.
- Session IDs: When a user that visits a website is assigned a different session ID which is then stored in the URL.
- Printer-friendly content: Sometimes, if you’ve been gracious enough to offer your readers a printer-friendly version of a piece of content, that can cause a URL variation too!
2) Different URL Prefixes
An off-shoot of the URL variation issue is if your site has URLs with different prefixes. This can be with or without “www” (www.site.com and site.com) and/or when you have both “http://” and https://. If both versions of a page are visible to search engines, in either situation, you could cause a duplicate content issue.
3) Copied Content
Copied content, whether it’s spun, scraped, or rewritten, is what comes to mind for most of us when we think of duplicate content and it can cause issues for search engines. However, unlike the above two reasons, there’s a greater chance this was done intentionally – though not always with malicious intent.
However, duplicate content isn’t just problematic for search engines and potential customers, they can cause a few problems for you too, causing you to drop in the rankings. This can happen for several reasons, such as:
- To provide the best service, search engines rarely show multiple versions of the same content and then have to choose which version most likely represents the most relevant result. This dilutes the visibility of each of the duplicates – which could include the version you want the search engine to display.
- Other sites also have to choose which version to link to among the duplicates as well. So, instead of your backlinks pointing to one piece of content, they could point to different versions of it, spreading the link equity among them. This can then impact the ranking and visibility of a piece of content.
- Displaying multiple versions of the same page can confuse visitors. Subsequently, they could lose faith in your ability to provide a good quality product or service and you could lose them as a potential customer.
Fortunately, there are a few relatively straightforward ways of dealing with duplicate content issues, such as:
- Using the noindex tag to signal to search engines to not index the page.
- Using the canonical link element to tell search engines which version of duplicated content is the main one.
- If you use a content management system (CMS), prevent it from publishing multiple versions of content. This could be achieved by disabling Session IDs, when they’re not essential to your site’s functionality, or removing printer-friendly versions of content.
Again, as intimidating as technical SEO can be – especially with it potentially playing such a big role in your site’s search engine ranking – don’t be put off by it. You can always get someone to improve your site’s technical SEO, like an SEO specialist or even the person who handles your website – if they happen to have the right knowledge and skills. Alternatively, if you’re happy to have a go at tackling your technical SEO yourself, there are plenty of great tools that will help you out immensely – which we’ll take a look at in the last section of this guide.
2) Content Optimisation
The second pillar of SEO is content optimisation, which is concerned with how you publish the content on each of your web pages. You can think of content optimisation as being a subset of on-page SEO as you’re still optimising something on the page and it’s something within your control.
Content optimisation is the process of presenting your content in a way that makes it easier to get noticed by search engines and reach the most people. Creating content that your target audience finds valuable and informative is the basis of any successful SEO strategy. It allows you to display your expertise, define your brand’s voice, and, perhaps most importantly – earn their trust. After all, if you can supply them with the information they were looking for, there’s a good chance that you provide the product or service they’re looking for too.
So, after you’ve placed time, effort, and money into creating high-quality content, it makes complete sense to spend a little extra time to make sure it’s as SEO-friendly as possible. Put another way, while the content itself is for your visitors, content optimisation is for the search engines that will bring those people to your site.
Here’s how to optimise the different content formats that you could publish on your site:
- Content: text is a unique content format because it can be read in its entirety by a search engine’s crawlers. That means you can insert the appropriate keywords throughout the text so it’s evaluated as being relevant by search engines
- Headings and Subheadings: Placing keywords in the content’s heading and section subheadings both signals a page’s relevance to a search engine and helps visitors find the information they’re looking for quicker
- Alt Tags: these describe what an image is about in the event it doesn’t load properly and help search engines determine how relevant to the user’s search term
- Captions: a caption next to the image not only provides more text for a search engine to crawl but also provides another way to engage the visitor with your content
- Filename: this makes it easier for users to find your site through image searches
- File Size: the smaller the size of the image, the faster it will be rendered when the page is loaded, so compressing images can be an effective way to optimise your site
- Titles: this helps search engines and users understand what the video is about and how relevant it is
- Description: a written description of the video’s content helps search engines determine its relevance. This could be further enhanced with a summary of the video directly underneath it
- Filename: this makes it easier for users to find your site through video searches
- Titles: this helps search engines and users understand what the audio recording is about and how relevant it is
- Description: a written description of the audio file’s content helps search engines determine their relevance. This could be further enhanced with a transcript of the audio directly underneath it
3) Digital PR (Off-Page SEO)
The third pillar of SEO is digital PR, also commonly known as off-page SEO. Digital PR refers to everything that can be done away from your site to increase its search engine ranking. The main component of off-page SEO is link-building: when other sites link back to content on your website. Backlinks are great for your SEO as when other sites link to your content, search engines take this as further evidence that your website is relevant and valuable. Better still, the higher the rank of a site that links to you, the bigger the boost to your SEO.
Unlike on-page SEO, off-page SEO is largely outside your control, as it’s up to other people to decide if they want to link to your content. What is within your control, however, is creating excellent content that people feel compelled to share. It’s also within your control to approach quality sites about the possibility of adding a backlink to your site. However, due to it being time-consuming, many businesses hire SEO agencies to approach suitable websites on their behalf.
Links fall into three categories:
- Natural Links: these are earned without any direct action on your part, aside from publishing the content. For example, a review blogger adding a link to a product they’ve featured in one of their posts.
- Manually-Built Links: these are earned through a deliberate link-building strategy. Manually-built links can be created in many ways, such as guest posts, case studies, review posts, and compilation, or ‘best of’, posts.
- Self-Created Links: these are links that you manage to acquire yourself, such as adding your site to an online business directory, posting comments on blog posts and forums, etc.
Although earning backlinks from external sites is the most important part of your digital PR strategy, it’s not the only form of off-page SEO; it can also include components, such as:
- Social Media Marketing: maintaining a consistent presence on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook boosts your brand awareness, drives traffic to your website, and creates opportunities for people to share your content.
- Influencer Marketing: a form of social media marketing where your product or service is promoted by an influencer: a person with a large social media following
- Unlinked Brand Mentions: when your company is mentioned, but without a backlink to your site. While this may not directly improve your SEO, it’s still good for increasing your brand awareness.
SEO tactics are the different techniques used in your overall SEO strategy. However, it’s crucial to be aware of the fact that some SEO tactics aren’t considered ethical so they’re looked upon unfavourably by search engines.
Website owners and marketers have been using manipulative methods to attract traffic since the early days of the internet, which is why search engine companies, like Google, have to frequently change their algorithms and best-practice guidelines to maintain the quality and integrity of the results they display.
SEO tactics can be categorised as:
- White Hat
- Black Hat
- Grey Hat
Let’s look at each in greater detail:
White Hat SEO
White hat SEO refers to the correct, ethical way to optimise a website. It means refraining from trying to ‘game’ the system and following a search engine’s guidelines to ensure your webpages rank as high as possible in their indexes.
Because webpages are ranked based on their relevance, white hat SEO tactics focus on making a page as relevant to a particular search term as possible. The idea is that if you focus on making a page appealing to people, it’ll appeal to search engines as well.
When it comes down to it, white hat SEO is simple: consistently create high-quality content for your target audience in a way that allows it to be indexed by search engines. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s easy, because it takes time and sustained effort – which is why some businesses unwisely resort to black hat tactics. White hat SEO is a long-term strategy but it also offers the biggest long-term benefits to your business.
Examples of white hat SEO tactics include:
- Unique, informative content
- Relevant headings and subheadings
- Relevant page titles
- Appropriately-labelled images
- Filled in meta-tags and descriptions
- Well-thought-out site navigation
- Legitimate backlinks on high-authority sites
Black Hat SEO
Black hat SEO, as you might have guessed, is the opposite of white hat SEO in that involves using tactics that violate search engine guidelines. Black hat SEO tactics are manipulative and revolve around making search engines believe a webpage is more relevant to a user’s search than it really is.
While an effective SEO strategy takes time to start working, black hat SEO focuses on quick wins. Many of the techniques used to work remarkably well, until search engines figured out what was going on and changed their algorithms. In fact, some black hat tactics still work to some extent, but not as well as in the past – and it’s only a matter of time until a Google update renders them ineffective too.
The potential consequence of engaging in black hat SEO tactics is receiving a penalty from Google. A Google penalty means your site’s rankings for your targeted keywords have fallen considerably or, worse, it’s no longer listed in users’ search results at all. Penalties can be automatic, meaning they came from a change to Google’s algorithm, or you can receive a manual penalty, which means it was issued by one of Google’s human evaluators.
Unfortunately, removing a penalty against your site isn’t always straightforward. Now, on one hand, if you receive an algorithm penalty, your site is probably still ranked – only a lot lower. To rectify this, you’ll have to research likely changes brought in with the updated algorithm and amend your site accordingly.
On the other hand, if you receive a manual penalty, you need to fix the problem and then make an appeal to Google for them to reindex your website. However, there’s no guarantee this will be done quickly – if at all, and you’ll still have to claw your way back up the rankings. So, when you take all these things into account, black hat SEO tactics aren’t worth the hassle.
Examples of black hat SEO tactics include:
- Content spinning
- Keyword stuffing
- Link manipulation (buying links, link farms, etc.)
- Spamming comments
- Cloaking: showing one piece of content to users and a different piece of content to search engines
- Sneaky redirects: sending someone to a different URL than the one they initially clicked
- Hidden text or links
- Doorway pages: landing pages used to trick search engines and transfer visitors from the URL they clicked on to a different, often unrelated, webpage
- Pages with malicious intent, i.e., phishing or installing viruses, trojans, malware, etc.
- Abusing rich snippets (structured data) markup: providing inaccurate information in structured data to deceive search engines
We go into greater detail about which black hat SEO you should avoid in the next section.
Grey Hat SEO
Grey hat SEO, though not as discussed as often, is comprised of tactics that fall somewhere between being white hat and black hat. In most cases, they could be considered manipulative, but Google has yet to explicitly name them as tactics to avoid. However, the key word here is yet, so while they might be less risky than black hat tactics, search engines could change their algorithm and guidelines, resulting in your site being penalised down the line.
However, as is typical for any grey area, people disagree on what’s considered a grey hat SEO tactic, but they usually include:
- Content rewriting
- Duplicate content
- Purchasing links
- Keyword-heavy ‘thin’ content that offers little to no valuable information
- Microsites: creating a simple site, maybe just composed of a single page, with a narrow focus – that then links back to your main website
- Purchasing expired domains: buying a domain that the owner let expire that still has a lot of authority from existing backlinks – redirecting visitors to your domain
- Social media automation: Using tools that automatically follow and unfollow thousands of accounts at a time – often as a result of hiring someone to handle your social media accounts
Which SEO Techniques Should Be Avoided?
Nothing halts the momentum of your SEO strategy than finding out your site has been penalised by search engines. So, following on from our discussion of different SEO tactics, here are the main SEO techniques that you should avoid so you’re not penalised by search engines.
Keyword stuffing refers to the practice of filling your content with terms a potential customer is likely to search for in an attempt to improve a page’s ranking in search results pages.
Keyword stuffing comes in many forms, with a common example being businesses in the travel industry that are trying to rank for locations. You can tell these sites from their footers at the bottom of the page because they have lists of links that read something like, “cheap hotels Brisbane”, “cheap hotels Gold Coast”, “cheap hotels Sunshine Coast”, and on and on. Then, if you were to click on one of those links, most of the time, it’d just take you to another, similar page – with its own keyword-stuffed footer!
Alternatively, and most commonly, it’s some website copy or blog post where the author has gone overboard with keywords, attempting to wedge them in as much as possible. Only this makes the text appear forced and unnatural and renders it unreadable.
Not only is it clear to the reader that you’ve tried to cram certain keywords in as many times as possible but it communicates the content isn’t there to help them – just to get them to your site. This can lead to prospects feeling mislead and breaks the trust required for them to become a customer.
Subsequently, when a keyword-stuffed page makes it into a user’s search results, it’s not relevant and brings down their quality. This then lowers the quality of service the search engine aims to provide – so they look unfavourably on sites that engage in keyword stuffing.
Using Hidden Text
Using hidden text is a variation on the above technique, whereby you hide lots of keywords within a page so it’s ranked higher by search engines.
A common way of achieving this is by making the keyword text really small or the same colour as the site’s background. This artificially inflates a page’s relevance by making it look like the user’s search term appears on the page more than it really does. Now, although many visitors are unlikely to notice this, and it may not affect their user experience very much, search engines do notice – and see this tactic as a blatant attempt to manipulate their rankings.
Similarly, a technique known as cloaking enables you to show one page to search engines while showing a different one to a user. This is achieved with a script within the page’s code that detects whether it’s being read by a machine or a human. If the script determines it’s being accessed by a search engine, it will serve a different, keyword-stuffed, page to it. If, on the other hand, it detects it’s being accessed by a real visitor, it will display a different page. Unsurprisingly, cloaking is considered unethical, i.e., black hat, by search engines.
However, that’s not to say that all hidden text is viewed as manipulative by search engines: some instances of hidden text are fine. For example, many sites feature content that’s hidden behind a tab that says “read more”, or something similar, which requires the user to click it to view the content. Another common instance when hidden text is fine is when it’s there to give a website a responsive design, i.e., displaying pages differently depending on whether the user is viewing them on a desktop or mobile device.
Content, or text, spinning is the practice of reusing existing content on one of your webpages. This typically involves content found on other sites and can be achieved manually, by rewriting the content yourself, or with one of the many content spinning tools that will rewrite the text for you – with varying results.
Content spinning should be avoided, very simply, because it usually leads to subpar content that’s difficult for people to read. This means that your content won’t be unique – and it definitely won’t be high-quality. While content spinning may succeed in getting more people to your site in the short term, those people are less likely to become customers and you won’t build a brand in the long run.
Spamming comments is the practice of regularly posting links to your site as comments on blog posts, articles, forums, etc, to boost your off-page SEO. This commonly comes in the form of a random comment, that has nothing to with the topic at hand, or a generic comment with a link right underneath. Spamming comments can appear to be a tempting SEO technique because it’s so cost-effective – with it costing very little, in money or time, with the right software and a little knowledge.
However, not only is it bad for the site you do it on, as the spam clogs up their comments section, annoys their readers, and could even result in them being penalised by search engines, but it’s bad for you as well. Search engines will penalise you, devaluing your links so they mean nothing for your SEO and, worse, you could ruin your reputation within your industry.
Fortunately, spamming comments happens is less common these days as search engines have updated their algorithms to discount links in blog comments. Plus, most authoritative sites, such as blogs, with a lot of link authority make links in their comments nofollow by default. However, this doesn’t stop some unscrupulous ‘digital marketers – on places like Fiverr, for instance, still offering comment spamming services – so be sure to stay well away!
Backlinks are an important part of a site’s off-page SEO strategy and a common way to manipulate this aspect is by buying them. In fact, buying backlinks is so commonplace that a whole industry has grown around it.
The main problem with buying backlinks is that they’re supposed to be earned on merit. When a high-authority site links back to your site, it’s because you have relevant, valuable content that they think is useful for their visitors. However, merely purchasing a link skips all of that and, ultimately, undermines and diminishes the service provided by search engines.
However, as touched upon in the previous section when discussing grey hat SEO, a form of buying backlinks that’s a bit of a grey area is paying for a guest post. This is where you come to an agreement with a high-authority blog that shares your target audience to provide them with content and a link back to your site, for a fee.
This is a grey area for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you could provide them with high-quality content that their readers are genuinely interested in and compel them to click through to your site. Secondly, there’s a good chance that the high authority site gets a lot of requests for guest posts and charging a fee allows them to filter out businesses that aren’t that serious. Besides, even though they charge for a guest post, many of these blogs will still have a vetting process – so your content has to be good anyway – so no harm no foul, right?
Now, while this may be tempting, guest posts don’t come cheap – especially on high-quality, authoritative sites. Bear in mind that an effective off-page SEO strategy will take more than one link so implementing one through paid links won’t be cost-effective. The best approach when it comes to earning backlinks, though it’s a long-term one, is to simply create valuable content that people want to link to and choose to share.
A link exchange, also known as reciprocal linking, is when you come to an agreement with another site’s owner to link to each other – a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario. Such link exchanges used to be a popular tactic until search engines started to cotton on to what was happening.
Now, just to be clear, a link exchange can be beneficial in some cases. For instance, when engaging in a bit of cross-promotion with a complementary business with whom you have target audience crossover. It’s when you repeatedly agree to exchange links with poor quality sites, who approach you out of the blue, no less, that it becomes an issue.
Firstly, such sites never have much authority so they won’t do much for you in terms of rankings or traffic. And secondly, if you link to a poor-quality site, you’re run the risk of compromising your reputation with your visitors. Avoid this, and safeguard your brand, by only linking to sites that you think will be of use or interest to your target audience.
Because acquiring backlinks can be time-consuming, and, if you opt to buy backlinks, expensive (which, again we don’t recommend), some digital marketers have chosen to build their own websites to link to websites that they want to rank higher. These sites are known as link farms and are created for the sole purpose of strengthening their, and/or their clients’, off-page SEO by artificially inflating the number of backlinks a particular site has.
However, because link farms usually have low-quality content and lots of links, search engines can easily detect and penalise them – devaluing all of their links. Consequently, you should avoid using them as part of your link-building strategy.
Similarly, a private blog network (PBN) is a particular type of link farm that sees a network of interlinked blogs. However, PBNs tend to be set up for the purpose of backlinking to a single website, as opposed to all the sites in the network.
The EAT Model
Another factor that Google, in particular, uses to determine the quality of a site is known as the EAT model, which stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trust. Although this has been around for a while, it’s been emphasised in recent years, particularly since a significant Google algorithm update back in August 2018.
As well as having sophisticated algorithms for indexing and ranking sites, Google employs over 10,000 people as Search Quality Evaluators, who visit sites and carry out spot checks to see how effective their algorithms are. EAT came from a document called the Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, which was written for their human evaluation team and helps them better recognise a site’s quality.
Along with the concept of EAT is that of YMYL (Your Money or Your Life). While EAT applies to all websites, it’s especially important for certain sites that are classified as YMYL: businesses that are concerned with happiness, health, and wealth. When it comes to such sites, Google doesn’t just care about the information being relevant, they also require it to be correct. Otherwise, they have the potential to negatively affect a person’s wellbeing.
Sites considered YMYL include:
- Health and Safety: information or advice on health and medical issues, including hospitals, pharmacies, medication, or drugs
- Finance: advice or information regarding banking, investments, taxes, retirement planning, loans, and insurance
- Groups of People: information or claims about people based on ethnicity, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age or disability
- Civics, Government, and Law: information related to voting, legal advice, government agencies, public institutions, or social services
- Shopping: content that features product research, or the researching of products and services that require a purchase
- News and Current Events
Now, let’s look at each element of EAT in more detail, including how to successfully demonstrate them.
Expertise refers to being knowledgeable in the subject that business engages in and your site publishes content on. Ways of displaying expertise include:
- Writing high-quality content
- Citing (and linking to) external sources, whenever relevant
- Content authors stating their job title and qualifications and/or certification where appropriate
- Stating how many years of experience your content authors have
- Author biographies
- Stating when the company was founded and how many years they’ve been operating
- Displaying any awards your company has won
- Displaying any industry accreditations your company has earned
Authority refers to being knowledgeable, well-known, and well-regarded in your field. Ways of demonstrating authority include:
- Having a high volume of high-quality content
- Links from relevant and authoritative websites
- Displaying your official affiliation with prominent organisations, such as a governmental department or educational institution
- Your content is frequently shared on social media
- Building brand authority: if people search for your brand name, that’s a good sign of authority, but if people search for your brand name with a relevant keyword, that’s even better
Trust refers to the fact that prospective customers and clients can be confident in receiving the product or service they expect when they purchase from you. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do this and some are easy to implement, such as:
- Gaining positive reviews on places like Google My Business, Trustpilot, Facebook, TripAdvisor, etc.
- Publishing customer or client testimonials on your site
- Providing an easy way for people to get in contact with you, i.e., a contact us page with a phone number and/or email address or contact form
- Displaying a physical location on your site, i.e., your office or store address
- Having a terms and conditions or term of business page (usually in the footer)
- Correctly implementing HTTPS
- Displaying a security seal, e.g., that you’re using Norton or McAfee software to secure your site
- A clear refund and returns policies (for eCommerce sites)
- If you’re selling products, try to include comprehensive specifications of the product and include any safety advice that might be relevant
Common SEO Myths
One of the main reasons businesses fail to progress with their SEO as much as they could is they end up believing one of the various myths that surround the subject. It’s important to be aware of common SEO myths, as they can prevent you from starting, or persisting with, your SEO strategy. It’s also possible that being exposed to one of these myths has messed with your SEO efforts in the past. So, with that in mind, let’s break down the SEO myths you’re most likely to come across.
SEO Is Dead
This SEO myth definitely has to go first – because it’s the most ridiculous! The idea that SEO is dead stems from the fact that there are now several forms of digital marketing, whereas, in the early days of the internet, SEO was the primary method of promoting your business online. Today, with social media marketing, influencer marketing, Facebook Ads, and more of an emphasis on content marketing, SEO doesn’t seem as shiny and new – misleading business owners into thinking it doesn’t matter anymore.
However, in reality, for SEO to be dead, search engines themselves would have to be dead too – and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. In fact, as the amount of content on the internet grows, search engines will only further develop so they can crawl, index, and rank content more efficiently – so SEO will only become even more important.
SEO Is a One-Time Thing
Another dangerous myth that can result in you not seeing the desired results from your efforts to optimise your site is that SEO is a one-time thing. Now, to start putting this myth in its proper perspective, consider that at any given time, these things are happening:
- Sites already at the top of rankings are continuing to implement, and maybe trying to improve, their SEO strategies
- Sites that have been implementing an SEO strategy for a few months are starting to climb the rankings
- Some sites are just getting started on their SEO strategies.
Because of this, rankings are fluid and constantly changing: there’s always someone working for the same spot. As a result, SEO can’t be something that you ‘set and forget’ and only do once; you have to work at it consistently – long-term. Fortunately, the longer and more consistently you work at it, the better the results, and the harder you’ll be to supplant by your competition.
In contrast, if you successfully begin to carry out your SEO strategy and then start to neglect it, a few things can happen:
- Your competitors overtake you (by being consistent with their SEO)
- You start losing backlinks
- Your content loses ‘freshness’, i.e., the information isn’t as current so it’s not visited or linked to as often
So, in short, as opposed to being a one-time thing, SEO is a long-term strategy that takes time, consistency, and persistence – but the juice is more than worth the squeeze.
Duplicate Content Gets You Penalised
Although people who actually work for Google have said there’s no penalty for duplicate content on several occasions, this myth remains a common one. In reality, duplicate content isn’t penalised – it gets filtered, so multiple versions of it don’t end up in users’ SERPs.
However, as we covered earlier, when learning about technical SEO, filtering duplicate content can still cost you traffic even without you being penalised for it. The first reason for this is, if they’re not told which version to display, search engines will just decide for themselves and may include the wrong version in their indices. Secondly, any site that attempts to link to your content could unintentionally link to any one of its duplicates.
Social Signals Are a Ranking Factor
Another common SEO myth is that social media shares help your search engine ranking. In reality, the links from social media are nofollow so, unfortunately, you don’t get all the link equity from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
However, that’s not to say that social signals have no effect on rankings whatsoever, as there can be a correlation between shares and traffic. There are a few potential reasons for this:
- More shares lead to more exposure, which can lead to more backlinks
- Social media shares increase your brand awareness, making it more likely that people recognise your business when they come across it in their SERPs and click through to your site
- Also, thinking about it the other way around, sites that rank well receive more traffic, which increases the chances they’ll be shared on social media
So, while social media signals don’t directly lead to better search engine rankings, like other SEO techniques, it’s still highly advantageous to have your content shared on social media. A great way to encourage people to do this, as well as make it convenient for them, is placing social media sharing buttons next to your content.
Google Ads Don’t Help Your SEO
As we mentioned earlier in this guide, pay-per-click (PPC) ads, like Google Ads, can be an effective strategy to work alongside your SEO efforts – particularly while you’re waiting for the changes you’ve made to your website to be reflected in search engine results.
However, there’s some debate over whether Google Ads influences SEO or not. Now, if it were true and running a PPC campaign boosted your site’s ranking, this wouldn’t be good news for SMEs, as large companies, who spent the most on PPC, would have the highest rankings. Thankfully that’s not the case.
However, Google Ads can indirectly help your SEO in a couple of ways. Firstly, as with social media mentions, they can help increase your brand awareness. Having seen a link to your site as an ad, a prospect will now be a little familiar with your business. So, when they later see you in the organic rankings, they’ll be more likely to click through to one of your pages. This makes your page look relevant to the search term and positively influences your ranking.
Secondly, Google Ads can also help your SEO because they can earn you backlinks. People that click on your ads are still looking for a product, service, or information – which led them to enter the search term that brought up your ad. A proportion of those could link back to your site, just as they would if they found you through organic search or any other method.
SEO Is All About Ranking
And the final myth to address is that SEO is only about ranking. While getting your site as high on SERPS is the ultimate goal of SEO, it’s important not to get too caught up in your ranking – especially when you’re just starting to carry out your strategy. The entire reason you’re optimising your site is so you can attract more customers or clients to your business, increase its profitability, and fulfil your potential as a company.
However, on the way to that goal, you’ll be creating valuable content and providing the best possible user experience for your visitors. You may not yet have the kind of traffic you’d eventually like you’re still providing information and value to the people that did stop by your site. This means you’re still creating brand awareness, developing the connection between you and your target audience, and developing a loyal customer base.
How Do I Know If My SEO Works?
Once you put together and start implementing your SEO strategy, how do you know if what you’re doing is working? SEO takes time – but how do you know when your efforts have started to bear fruit? This can be an especially pressing question if you’re frustrated that your efforts to optimise your website are going nowhere.
All too many business owners have given up on their SEO too early because they didn’t get the results they were expecting – not realising their SEO strategy was starting to work! So you can tell when you’re making progress in search engine rankings, here are three ways to tell if your SEO is working.
The first way to tell if your SEO works is an increase in organic traffic. If you start to notice an increase in visitors, enquiries, sales, etc., it could mean that more people are finding your site through their SERPs. Alternatively, it could mean that you have more sites linking back to your content, but, in either case, it’s a good indication your SEO efforts are starting to pay off.
Google Analytics is an excellent tool for finding out this information, as it tracks and measures several important site performance metrics such as number of impressions, traffic from organic traffic, number of pages ranked, number of backlinks, and the number of referrals you’ve received from other sites.
A second way to tell if your SEO strategy is working is when there’s an improvement in your pages’ ranking in search engine results. This indicates that your pages are not only being crawled and indexed properly but that search engines are registering the changes you’re making to your site.
Now, for you to be able to measure the improvement in your keyword ranking, you need to check your rankings for each keyword that you aim to target when you first start implementing your SEO strategy. This will give you bassline rankings that you can compare against going forward.
However, it’s important to be aware of the fact that improvements in your keyword rankings won’t necessarily be constant and linear: they may fluctuate at first. However, this is normal and generally means your SEO strategy is starting to work. If, on the other hand, after a couple of months, you’re still not ranking for the desired keywords, it could be a sign that the search terms are too competitive and you may need to reconsider tweaking your keyword strategy.
Fortunately, as with measuring your site’s traffic, there are lots of great tools that can help you track your keyword rankings, some of which we’ll share in the next section.
Domain And Page Authority
A third way to tell if your SEO works is when you see an increase in your Domain Authority (DA) and/or Page Authority (PA). Both DA and PA were developed by Moz, an SEO software company, and provide a score on a scale of 1-100, which refers to the probability of appearing on SERPs. DA rates the strength of your website’s overall domain, while PA does the same for individual webpages. You can discover your site’s domain and page authority through Moz’s Link Explorer.
What Are SEO Tools?
Now, we’ve covered a lot in this SEO guide and all the different elements of an effective SEO strategy can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of excellent SEO tools out there which make optimising your site and climbing search engine rankings far simpler – many of which are free or at least have a trial period. Here’s a selection of some of the best SEO tools, divided into categories.
- Analytics: These are tools that provide data about websites such as the number of site visits, traffic sources, and location demographics. The best example of an analytics tool is Google Analytics, as it’s completely free to use, has lots of powerful features, and is pretty easy to get to grips with.
- Crawling and Indexing: These are tools that identify what could be preventing your webpages from being correctly crawled and indexed by search engines. This includes looking for broken links and redirects, duplicate content, creating XML sitemaps, and general audit of your website.
Google Search Console is an excellent crawling and indexing tool, with lots of powerful functionality. BrowSEO is also handy because it shows you what your website looks like to a search engine, which allows you to troubleshoot any problems easier.
- Crawling and Indexing: These are tools that identify what could be preventing your webpages from being correctly crawled and indexed by search engines. This includes looking for broken links and redirects, duplicate content, creating XML sitemaps, and general audit of your website.
- Keyword Research: These tools help you identify the best keywords for your content and measure how effectively you’re using them. Fortunately, you have a lot of choice when it comes to keyword research tools, such as:
- Local SEO: These tools specifically help you hone in on local SEO, such as optimising your business listing, collecting and checking reviews, etc.
Without a doubt, Google My Business is your ace in the hole when it comes to local SEO tools. It allows you to create a business profile in Google so you show up better in searches and on Google Maps. Whitespark Local Citation Finder is another handy tool as it allows you to track your business’ citations and discover more opportunities for your business to be mentioned.
- Mobile SEO: These tools help you determine how mobile-friendly your site is and offer suggestions on how to give it a more responsive design. Two great Mobile SEO tools to check out are:
- On-page SEO: Tools that help you improve your site’s on-page SEO, such as optimising page titles, metadata, structured data, and content in general. Here are two great On-Page SEO tools:
- Research: These tools help you conduct better research so you’re better able to create optimised content that your visitors find informative and useful. They also allow you to carry out competitor research to learn what your competition is doing, what you can learn from them, and what you could improve upon. Here are three excellent SEO research tools.
There are tons of SEO tools and the best approach is to take a little time to find out which work best for you. While the tools outlined above are a good start, you can find out more about SEO tools from this article.
So, in conclusion, if you’re serious about marketing your business online, for the long-term, and want your company to grow to its full potential – SEO is a must.
Now, we fully understand that there’s a lot of information contained in this guide – and we hope that you’ll keep returning to it as your understanding of SEO grows and your strategy starts to take shape. However, here are a few key takeaways from this guide:
- ¾ of people don’t look past the first page of Google when searching for something
- SEO stands for search optimisation and is the process of getting your website as high in search engine rankings as possible, so your business is featured on the first page of your target audience’s search engine results pages (SERPs)
- The three pillars of a successful SEO strategy are website optimisation (on-page and technical SEO), content optimisation, and digital PR (off-page SEO)
- SEO techniques can be categorised as white hat, black hat, and grey hat. Black hat SEO tactics are considered unethical, could get you penalised, and are to be avoided. Grey hat tactics are still a little unethical – but haven’t yet been officially specified as such by search engines (and that can all change with a single Google update). White hat SEO tactics bring long-term success and the best user experience for your visitors, so you should focus on them
- EAT stands for Expertise, Authority, Trust. Sites that publish information related to a person’s health, wealth, or happiness (YMYL – your money or your life) need to make an extra effort to display evidence of EAT.
- Lots of unhelpful myths about SEO persist, such as being SEO being dead (it isn’t), SEO being a one-time thing (it’s not), and the Google Ads never help your ranking (they can)
- To tell if your SEO is working, look for increases in traffic, changes in your keyword rankings, and improvements in your Domain Authority (DA) and/or Page Authority (PA)
- There are plenty of powerful, easy-to-use tools that will help you execute out your SEO strategy
Lastly, another important takeaway is that you don’t have to tackle your SEO alone. If you want any help:
- Creating an SEO strategy
- Troubleshooting and improving your existing SEO strategy
- Approaching your site’s technical SEO
- Developing an effective link-building strategy
- With branding, identifying and attracting your target audience, or any other aspect of digital marketing
Then please get in touch and we can work on growing your business together.
Steve Jaenke has been involved in the digital world for over 2 decades. Seeing the power of SEO early in the market he pivoted his business to focus on assisting SME to understand and leverage the power of Google. He is a recurrent judge for the Australian Web Awards awards.