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Do you find SEO confusing and complicated? Do you wish you understood more about SEO and how it works? Then you NEED to read my beginner’s guide to SEO in 2023!
Do you wish you could make your blog grow? Do you wish you could grow your blog in a consistent sustainable way? Do you wish you could stop spending hours and hours on social media every week?
Then I have good news for you! Search Engine Optimization (SEO) will help you do ALL of these things!
SEO has helped me to grow my blog fast and get to the point where I am earning a six-figure income from blogging.
But the best thing about SEO is, unlike social media, it delivers steady sustainable growth. You reap the rewards of the work you put in year after year.
In fact, working on SEO fits in very well with my focus on productivity. It’s been my experience that a small amount of effort with SEO can yield much bigger and much, much longer lasting results than concentrating large amounts of effort on social media or even Pinterest.
The trouble with SEO is there is so much information out there it can be hard to know where to begin! In this beginner’s guide to SEO I will take you step by step through the most important aspects of SEO for bloggers.
But first, let’s start at the very beginning…
What is SEO?
Put simply SEO is the practice of optimizing websites to make them reach a high position in search engine results. But how do search engines decide which pages to rank where? To understand this, you must understand how search engines work…
How do search engines work?
Essentially, search engines follow links. Search engines have bots which go around the web following links and indexing what they find. They then use an algorithm to determine which website to rank highest for each search term.
How do search engines decide which website should rank number 1?
To understand this, think of search engines as businesses (which they are). They want to keep their customers happy, so they keep coming back and don’t switch to competitors. Consequently, search engines want to give you the best result for your search query. They use an algorithm to help them decide which is the BEST ANSWER to a particular search query.
The key to SEO
So really the key to SEO is very simple…
The way to rank highly in search engines is to BE THE BEST RESULT!
If you are genuinely the best result for a particular query, you should rank as number 1 for that query.
Of course, being the best result is not always as simple as it sounds! And in the rest of this article I will show you exactly what being the best result entails. But it is an important principle to keep hold of. A principle which is likely to always hold true, no matter what search looks like in the future.
SEO is not a trick
This is a common myth that many people still believe – that SEO is some kind of trick or system and that us, ‘the little guys’ don’t stand a chance versus the big guys who have lots of SEO professionals working for them.
But the truth is SEO really isn’t a trick, it’s all about creating great content that your audience really wants to read. The only ‘tricks’ involved are learning to write truly excellent content and learning to convince search engines that your content really is the best content.
This is what I will teach in the rest of this article.
Ranking factors for search engines
So how exactly do you ‘do’ SEO? What are the factors which determine how well your post or page will do in the search results compared to all the other websites out there competing for the same search term?
The key factors which will affect how well your content ranks are:
- keyword research
- keyword optimization
- site structure
- technical SEO
Let’s take each of these in turn…
This is a hugely important part of SEO and one that is often overlooked. Keyword research is all about understanding WHAT your audience is actually searching for.
What are keywords?
Your keyword is the search phrase you wish a particular blog post to be found for. So, for example, say you are writing a recipe post for mushroom risotto, your keyword might be ‘mushroom risotto’.
2 big mistakes with keywords
There are two big mistakes bloggers make when choosing keywords.
The first is to choose keywords which people are not searching for. For example, you may have written the best carrot risotto recipe in the world, but if people are not searching for ‘carrot risotto’ it won’t matter. You might even rank number 1 for ‘carrot risotto’ but no-one will ever know because no one is looking for carrot risotto.
The second mistake is to choose keywords which are too competitive. Going back to our example of ‘mushroom risotto’ – this is obviously a very popular search term. Consequently, there are A LOT of recipes on the internet for mushroom risotto – many of them from much bigger more well-known websites than yours, probably. A quick glance at the search results for mushroom risotto shows me the search results are dominated by big players such as supermarkets, the BBC, famous chefs and other big recipe websites.
Keyword research helps you choose keywords which people are actually searching for and which you actually stand a chance of ranking for.
So how do you do keyword research?
The first thing you really need is a good idea of ‘who’ your target audience is. If you don’t know who you are writing for, you won’t be able to do keyword research.
When you know ‘who’ you are writing for, try to think about ‘what’ they might be searching for. For example, over on my food blog easypeasyfoodie.com, my readers are busy people who want to eat well, but don’t have much time to cook. They want quick and easy, hassle free recipes that still deliver on taste.
Going back to my mushroom risotto example, what my readers want is a great tasting mushroom risotto which doesn’t take too much time or effort. What my readers are likely to be searching for is not ‘mushroom risotto’ but ‘quick mushroom risotto’ or ‘easy mushroom risotto’ or ‘simple mushroom risotto’. Keyword research helps me narrow down which of those search terms has the highest number of searches, but the lowest competition.
FREE Tools for keyword research
To help you do keyword research there are a number of tools you can use. (And contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to spend vast amounts of money on keyword research tools – all of these are FREE!)
Your own blog statistics
One of the best tools for keyword research is your own blog statistics. This will help you understand your audience more and identify what your audience are looking for from you. What are your most popular posts? What do your audience seem to really need? What are their pain points?
Google Trends helps you quickly and easily compare similar search terms to see which is most popular. It also shows related searches and search trends.
Google’s search results page
Google’s search results page will offer you a number of great insights. It will show you who the main competitors are for that search term (so you can see if you stand a chance!), it also shows you related searches and common questions people have on that topic.
Keyword research is a big topic and I have only just scratched the surface here, if you want to grasp a better understanding of keyword research, head over to my post on keyword research for bloggers where I explain keyword research in more depth.
And, if you’d like to see how keyword research works in practice, then check out my step by step guide to keyword research – where I take you one step at a time through how to do keyword research for your blog (including examples!), plus provide you with the perfect tool to make keyword research simple – my FREE Keyword Research Calculator!
Want to watch me work through real examples? Then check out my FREE KEYWORD RESEARCH TRAINING
Once you have your keyword (or more likely a keyword phrase) you need to optimize your post for that keyword. This means using that keyword in specific places to help search engines understand that that keyword is what your post is all about.
Where to use your keywords
In order to optimize a blog post for a particular keyword, you should use your keyword in the following places
- Your title
- Your first paragraph
- The alt description of some of your photos/graphics
- Several times throughout your text (in a natural way)
- At least one subheading
- Your URL (ideally, this is less important)
- Your meta description (this is the short paragraph Google uses underneath your title in search results)
Tools for keyword optimization
The main tool for keyword optimization is the Yoast SEO plugin. Yoast SEO is a plugin which is available in WordPress. You can type in your keyword phrase and Yoast will show you how you can improve your blog post in order to optimize your text for that keyword. Yoast gives you a red, orange or green traffic light against each of the criteria to show how well you are doing.
To read more about how to use Yoast to optimize your post for keywords, head over to my article on how to use the Yoast SEO plugin to optimize a blog post.
Readability is all about making sure your blog post is easy to read and ensuring that your readers can quickly and easily locate the information they are interested in.
This is becoming increasingly important as search engines want to deliver the very best result to their searchers. You may have great information hidden in your blog post, but if it’s hard to read or navigate, that is not the best result for your readers.
Key aspects of readability for SEO
A well written blog post should…
- Be well structured
- Have short, easy to read sentences
- Have a clear goal in mind
Let’s look at each of those things in turn…
A good text should be logical and easy to follow. It should help the reader quickly locate the information they are most interested in. The best way to do this is to use short paragraphs, bullet points and lots of headings.
You can see this in action in this article. I have used lots of short paragraphs and headings (H2, H3 & H4) to help you easily understand and navigate this blog post.
Short paragraphs are becoming more and more important as people are increasingly using mobile phones to access the internet and search for things. Long paragraphs look like a scary wall of text on a mobile phone!
Short paragraphs are also important for voice search. If people are using voice search, they want short easy to understand answers. They do not want Google to read them an essay!
Short, easy to read sentences
Again, this helps people to understand your text more easily. Short, easy to read sentences are becoming increasingly important as more and more users are using mobile to access information.
Apart from using shorter sentences, there are a number of ways to make your sentences easier to read. One is to use transition words/phrases (for example, however, as well as, because…) These help readers understand the relationship of sentences to one another and provide hints on what’s coming next.
You should also avoid (where possible!) using the passive voice, which nearly always results in longer more complex sentences.
Have a clear goal in mind
A clear goal will help you write a better, more readable blog post. A clear goal could be ‘to help readers cook a really good mushroom risotto’ or ‘to create a comprehensive beginner’s guide to SEO, which helps bloggers gain a clear understanding of what SEO is and how to apply it to their blogs’.
Having a goal will help you make better decisions about what to put in your blog post and what to leave out. It will also help you to create a clear and logical structure for your text.
Tools for readability
The main tool for readability is the Yoast SEO plugin. As with keyword optimization, Yoast will give you a red, orange or green traffic light against various readability criteria to show how well you are doing. You can find the readability score in the Yoast metabox at the end of your blog post.
To read more about how to use Yoast to improve the readability of your post, head over to my article on how to get a good readability score in Yoast (and why you really want to!)
To read more about crafting the perfect blog post, check out my article on how to write the perfect blog post (for search engines AND your readers)
A good site structure is important for SEO as it helps your visitors and search engines navigate your site.
User experience is a huge part of SEO. Google wants to send its searchers to the best content. One of the ways Google knows that content is good is if users have a good experience on your site.
We’ve seen above how you can give users a good experience on your site by giving them answers to problems they have and presenting those answers in clear, easy to read text. But another way to give your readers a good experience is by creating a website which readers can navigate easily.
A clear and easy to navigate site structure will help your visitors get to where they want to go and give them a better understanding of what your site is all about.
A clear site structure will also help Google and other search engines understand your site – it will help them crawl your site more efficiently and understand the hierarchy of your content. A good site structure will help Google to know which are your most important posts and pages and help you avoid competing with yourself in search results!
Elements of a good site structure
There are many parts to a good site structure, but the main ones are:
- Tags and categories
- Internal linking
- Cornerstone content
Tags and categories
Tags and categories help readers and search engines alike understand what content is available and how that content is structured.
Categories are the main way to structure your content. You should aim to have 4 to 6 broad categories on your website and all of your content should fit into one of these categories. To further divide your categories, you can use sub-categories. All of your categories should be roughly equal in size.
For example, on Productive Blogging I have 6 main categories Start a Blog, Blog Content, Grow Your Blog, Email Marketing, Monetize Your Blog and Productivity Tips. This blog post is part of the main category ‘Grow Your Blog’, I then have a sub category to ‘Grow Your Blog’ which is ‘Seo Tips’. This helps my readers easily find more SEO tips and / or more ways to grow their blogs.
All your main categories should ideally be displayed on your menu bar, so readers can see at a glance what topics you cover on your blog.
Tags are a way of linking content which is in different categories but has a topic in common. For example, I might want to link all my posts which mention the Yoast SEO plugin or all my posts which mention affiliate links. You should use tags sparingly, and for the express purpose of grouping together related content.
Unfortunately, most bloggers (myself included!!), can get a bit ‘tag happy’ and create way too many tags! Make sure you regularly go in and ‘audit’ your tags to ensure they all serve a purpose!
Internal links are hugely important both for readers and search engines.
Internal links help your readers discover related content that may well be of interest to them. It also gives them somewhere to go if they need additional clarification. For example, in this article I give you links to extra reading on each sub-topic, so you can get more information / understand it better.
Internal linking also helps search engines better understand the structure of your site: which articles are related, and which is the most important content on your site. Search bots see articles with lots of links pointing to them as more important than those with only a few links pointing to them.
Whenever you write a new post, you should always make sure you link to other related posts and go back into old related posts and link to your new blog post.
Put simply, cornerstone content is the most important content on your website – the pages or posts you want to rank highest for in search engines.
Cornerstone articles should be:
- Long: at least 900 words, but probably longer
- Evergreen: in other words, timeless – not tied to a particular year or season
- Complete, informative and authoritative: such as an ‘ultimate guide to…’
- Extremely well written: take your time, they should be your very best writing
- The most important pages on your website: reflecting the main topics of your blog
- The posts/pages you would most like your readers to read when they first visit your website
- Regularly updated
- Easy to find on your blog
You should write cornerstone articles about the keywords you most want to rank for. Typically, you would write at least 1 piece of cornerstone content for each of your main categories.
And crucially, these cornerstone articles should be the content on your site with the most internal links pointing TO them. Every time you write an article on your blog you should ensure there is a link pointing to the most relevant cornerstone article.
Tools for site structure
There are a number of tools available for site structure within the Yoast SEO plugin (free version). These include:
- an option to mark cornerstone content and get a stricter keyword and readability analysis
- tools to count the number of links to and from a post
- the ability to filter the post overview by cornerstone content, number of inbound links and number of outbound links.
The premium version of Yoast also gives you an additional tool – the internal linking suggestions, which will suggest links to include in your new blog post based on what you mention in that blog post.
To read more about site structure, check out my article on how to optimize your blog’s site structure for SEO.
For more information on cornerstone content, you can read my article on how to use cornerstone content to increase blog traffic.
Backlinks are when another website links to your content. Backlinks help search engines establish the ‘authority’ of your website and each individual post or page. We sometimes talk about ‘domain authority’ or ‘page authority’.
Put simply, if your website has a lot of backlinks from other websites which have a lot of authority themselves, that will increase your ‘domain authority’ with search engines.
If particular page or post has a lot of high quality links pointing to it that post/page will have a high ‘page authority’.
The idea is that a site with lots of good quality backlinks is more likely to have good quality content than one which has few backlinks, or which has only low authority or spammy backlinks.
How to get more backlinks
There are numerous ways of getting backlinks. Here are a few of the easier ones:
- Share your content regularly on social media
- Participate in blogger roundups
- Participate in blogger linkies
- Contribute to articles written by brands
- Create your own roundup posts
- Guest post on other blogs
- Keep an eye on hashtags like #journorequest and #prrequest on Twitter
Tactics to avoid
Google is very keen to ensure backlinks are ‘real’ and useful to readers. Unfortunately, given the importance of backlinks to SEO, many unscrupulous backlink techniques have sprung up over the years. These include things like paying for backlinks and backlink exchanges. These kinds of links do not benefit readers. Take care you avoid these, or you may get penalized by Google and demoted in the search rankings.
Technical SEO is a big subject and one which is mostly not for SEO beginners. However, there are things even beginners can do to improve their technical SEO.
Technical SEO is all about ensuring search engine bots can easily crawl and index your site, fixing broken links, improving your site speed and making sure you use structured data.
It is important that you make it easy for bots to crawl your site efficiently. One of the ways you can do this is by generating a sitemap and submitting it to Google. You should also ensure you fix crawl errors on your site. The Yoast plugin can help you with all of this. To find out how, read my article on how to set up the Yoast SEO plugin PROPERLY.
Fixing broken links
You should make sure you regularly check for broken links and fix them. You can use a tool such as Broken Link Checker to find these broken links and then fix them. This is a quick job if it’s done regularly but a long job if it’s not done for a long time. Make it a monthly habit to check your broken links!
Site speed is an area of SEO that is becoming more and more important. Having a fast website is vital for SEO. User experience (UX) is a huge part of SEO and if your site is slow to load, that will count against you in the rankings.
Search engines are in the business of giving the best answers to their searchers queries, and a slow answer is NEVER a great answer. To find out how you can improve your site speed, read my article on 11 ways to improve site speed that ANYONE can do!
Structured data is a piece of code which gives search engines additional information about your post or page.
Google uses this code to better understand your content and to create rich results. These are results in Google which appear with extra information.
For example, when you search for ‘mushroom risotto’, you will see in the search results entries which include cook time, calories, star ratings and photographs. These are rich results. Rich results are obviously more desirable as they stand out in search results and are visually more appealing.
However, Google can only provide rich results if you provide structured data. This is especially important for recipe bloggers. It is getting increasingly difficult to rank at all for recipes if you do not have your recipe in structured data format.
The good news is this is relatively easy to do. All you need to do is have a recipe plugin that will generate this structured data for you.
Do be careful though. Not all recipe plugins were created equal. The one I recommend is WP Recipe Maker. There is a free version, which you can download from the plugin repository on your WP dashboard. However, if you can possibly afford it, I recommend getting the Pro Bundle* which will give you lots of extra features including an easy way to generate nutrition information and the ability to allow readers to convert your recipes into their preferred measures (e.g. metric to US customary).
I hope this beginner’s guide to SEO has given you a good grasp of the basics of SEO as well as practical tips to improve your blog going forward. It might seem a little daunting, but it’s not really.
Remember to hold in mind that the key to good SEO is to BE THE BEST RESULT. But do also bear in mind that being the best result is much more than just writing down good information.
Being the best result involves
- working out what your audience are actually searching for
- writing great content that will really help your audience
- optimizing your posts with your chosen keywords
- making sure your text is well structured and easy to read
- ensuring your website is easy to navigate for both readers and bots
- doing what you can to try and get backlinks to your site
- using the Yoast plugin to help search bots crawl your site effectively
- fixing broken links
- improving your site speed
- using structured data (e.g. a recipe plugin) where appropriate
If you do all that for every post you will almost certainly see the results and reap the rewards – and you will definitely no longer be an SEO beginner!
Want to take your SEO to the next level?
Then you need SEO Jumpstart!
SEO Jumpstart is a jargon-free, self-paced SEO course for bloggers like you who want to grow their blogs in a long-term, sustainable way and be free from worrying about getting traffic from social media!
I know SEO can be super confusing! So please do feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments below, or head over to the Productive Blogging Community Facebook Page and ask them there!
SEO Jargon Buster
Want to understand SEO better but confused by the terminology? Then you need my SEO Jargon Buster!
- 17 SEO mistakes to avoid
- How to get your website on the first page of Google
- How to use the Yoast SEO Plugin to grow your blog
- Follow vs nofollow links… and how using the wrong one can seriously harm your SEO!
- SEO Jumpstart – A jargon free SEO course for bloggers!
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*This blog post contains affiliate links, this means if you click on a link and go on to buy the product I recommend, I will get a small commission, but you will not be charged a penny more – thanks in advance!