SEO optimization: what it is and how it works
If you, too, do not have a large initial budget but want to better promote your business on the Web, you should know that SEO can be of great help to you. Optimizing your site for search engines does not require a major financial outlay or particularly expensive tools, but to do it best you need to have a thorough understanding of the subject and put the right strategies and techniques into practice.
Entrepreneurs often outsource this process, outsourcing the practice of Search Engine Optimization to an SEO Specialist or agency. For a fledgling startup, however, allocating a portion of the budget to SEO may not be feasible: so don’t underestimate the importance of learning yourself, firsthand, the basic principles of SEO and the most effective tactics for optimizing a website for search engines (knowing this information, you can be sure, will also prove useful should you decide to hire an expert or professional team).
This guide cannot help but start with the meaning of the acronym SEO; the next step, then, is to find out why it is so important. Are you ready? Let’s get started!
What is SEO and why is it important
The acronym “SEO” which stands for “Search Engine Optimization“. Optimizing a site for search engines means increasing its visibility on them by putting into practice a series of strategies and practices that cover different areas, from the HTML structure of web pages to inbound and outbound links, passing through metadata, text, images and many other aspects.
In practical terms, putting SEO techniques into practice properly serves to improve the ranking of the web page within the SERP (Search Engine Results Page), i.e., the results screen generated by the search engine in response to a user query. SEO affects the ranking of “organic” results (otherwise known as “pure” results), i.e., the non-paid results of the SERP.
Since Google is by far the most widely used search engine in the world, most SEO optimization efforts focus on studying how this search engine’s algorithm works and performing the necessary actions to adapt websites to Google’s algorithm rules, which are frequently updated. The SEO goal on Google is to appear in the first positions of the first page of the search engine, that is, the one that users usually consult to find what they are looking for online.
Before finding out how to achieve this goal, it is important to understand why SEO is important for startups (and businesses in general).
The first reason has just been mentioned: virtually all users nowadays use search engines (and Google in particular) to look for information about something they are interested in, whether it is a simple personal curiosity or a product or service to buy. If you are now thinking that the product or service you propose is too niche to fit into this discussion, you should be prepared to think again: in fact, it is very likely that someone, on the search engines, is already looking for something similar in some way.
Thus, working properly in SEO allows you to reach potential customers more easily. Not only that, it also allows you to build a solid image of the brand in the eyes of users who, by seeing the brand on multiple pages of search results, have a chance to get to know it and become familiar with it.
Another reason why SEO is so important has already been mentioned above: compared to other methods of online promotion, Search Engine Optimization requires much smaller budgets, especially when considering return on investment (ROI). And there’s more: paid marketing campaigns bring in leads only during the campaigns themselves, while SEO guarantees results in the long run as well (i.e., for as long as the site remains in the top positions in search results).
This last aspect opens up another issue, which is at the center of a debate that is still open among experts: there are those, such as Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, who have been critical of the use of SEO for new startups, believing that search engine optimization is a process too slow (and too expensive in terms of the effort required) for companies of this type, which often need to make themselves known within a short time.
This point of view divided the experts, but some useful insights emerged from the debate to clarify which startups should, more than others, rely on SEO: these are the startups that have a limited budget to allocate to marketing (the advice, in this case, is to focus on the basics and do a few things but well) and/or that have long-term goals and/or that manage their online business through the website.
Speaking of experts, to (momentarily) close the debate, one can only quote a famous phrase by Tom Pick:
“Social may be sexy, but research still pays the bills.”
Keywords and search intent: what they are and how to use them
Now let’s get to the heart of the matter: you should know that choosing the keywords with which to be found on search engines is a fundamental phase of any strategic SEO activity. For this reason, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by “keywords” and to introduce another very important concept: “search intent.”
Keywords are the words that a user enters when performing a search within a search engine (i.e., when performing a “query“). The plural is a must: these are not only single words, but also strings of text composed of multiple words.
In this regard, remember that it is much more convenient and useful to focus on more specific keywords, composed of more words, instead of choosing keywords that are too generic. You must, basically, prefer so-called “long-tail keywords“: these are precisely longer and more specific keywords (for example: “hotel in Rome near the station”), with a more limited number of searches per month but also with higher conversion rates than more generic keywords. This is because, being very specific, the user using long-tail keywords is likely to be closer to purchase.
To do keyword research you can conduct interviews, carry out a competitive analysis, use special software or take advantage of the tools Google itself provides. The moment you go looking for relevant keywords for your business, in fact, you can find very interesting insights among the suggestions in the search bar, among the related words at the bottom of the SERP and among the snippets of results in the SERP itself.
Once you have identified a list of keywords, you can look at search volumes using a keyword research tool (for Google you can use the “Keyword Planning Tool” in Google Ads).
The time has now come to introduce the concept of “search intent“: it is the goal that the user has at the time of making a specific search within Google or another engine. This goal, in general terms, can be understood as either a need or a desire.
Based on search intent, queries (i.e., engine searches) are divided into 4 macrocategories:
- transactional queries, whose keywords seem to suggest an (immediate) user intention related to the purchase of a product or service;
- commercial queries, whose keywords seem to suggest a (future) user intention related to the purchase of a product or service; these users also have transactional intentions but need more time and convincing;
- informational queries, which indicate an intent related to finding information;
- navigational queries, aimed mostly at visiting a specific website, a brand in particular.
To understand search intent you should analyze search results based on the so-called 3 Cs of search intent:
- content type: is there a dominant content type in the SERP? (e.g. blog, product sheets, videos etc.)
- content format: is there a dominant format in SERP? (e.g., guides, directories, reviews etc.).
- content angle: is there a dominant angle in the SERP? (e.g. newly updated content, content aimed at beginners etc.)
Difference between SEO and SEA
Search Engine Optimization, by affecting “organic” SERP results, does not involve any form of payment to search engines to appear among the results in a more visible and advantageous position.
This is the main difference between SEO and SEA, an acronym that stands for Search Engine Advertising: like SEO, SEA bases its strategies on careful selection of keywords but, unlike SEO, SEA involves the creation of paid ads within search engines. The payment mechanism is the so-called “pay per click“: the advertiser pays a certain amount to the search engine each time a user clicks on its link. The amount of the sum to be paid is determined according to the logic of the auction between advertisers.
There is, then, an additional acronym you should know: SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and identifies the area of marketing that aims to increase qualified traffic to the site through different SEO and SEA strategies. To simplify, then, you can understand SEM as the combination of SEO and SEA: Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Advertising, in fact, are not mutually exclusive and, indeed, when used together, can achieve better results.
SEO ranking factors
Having exhausted the necessary digression on SEA, it is time to turn your attention back to SEO and, in particular, SEO ranking factors, that is, those factors that you need to take into account to optimize a site for search engines.
In this regard, it can be very useful for you to keep as a reference the “Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors,” first introduced in 2011 by Search Engine Land and then periodically updated according to changes in Google’s algorithm and beyond; you can download it here.
What is meant by On Page (or On Site) SEO
Up to this point we have spoken generically about SEO, but it should be pointed out that SEO is distinguished into On Page SEO and Off Page SEO.
SEO On Page refers to search engine optimization of all elements within the website to be placed within the SERP, such as titles, metadata, URL, text, and internal links. Not only that, within the On Page SEO category also fall the readability and usability of the pages of the website itself.
More specifically, On Page SEO can be further divided into two other distinct areas: search engine optimization of a site’s HTML code and structure, and search engine optimization of a site’s textual content and images.
SEO optimization of code (and CMS)
All websites consist of HTML source code, which affects the ranking of the websites themselves and, for this very reason, should be optimized for search engines.
There are many elements to pay attention to: it is impossible not to start with the title tag or meta title, that is, the clickable title that appears above the meta description in the SERP. In technical terms, it represents a portion of HTML code that is meant to describe the content of a page. For it to be SEO-optimized, it must clearly explain to users and search engines what the page is about and contain within it (preferably among the first words) the main keyword.
The previously mentioned meta description does not directly affect a site’s ranking within the search engine, but it is very important for the purpose of the so-called click through rate (i.e., the ratio of number of views to number of clicks). Its message must be clear and consistent with the content of the page, but also catchy (so as to entice users to click and visit the site).
The URL of the site must contain the main keyword and briefly explain the content of the web page. In order for it to be crawled by search engines, it must not contain special characters (such as, for example, the “?”).
The main keyword must also be present in the H1 title, i.e., the main title. To understand the difference between title tag and H1 title, you can think of the former as the title that is aimed at search engines and designed specifically for indexing in SERPs and the latter as the title that is aimed at humans, which users can see at the top of the page they browse.
The other so-called heading tags (H2, H3 etc.) serve to further clarify the content of a web page by dividing it into paragraphs.
Alt text, or alternative text, on the other hand, is an attribute that is added to images placed within the web page and is used to explain to search engines what they contain.
The structure of the site should also be designed with SEO in mind to facilitate search engine crawling: the optimal solution involves a hierarchical or “tree-like” structure, in which each page is linked to another by a link.
The most recurring question among those who decide to use a CMS to create a site is this: is there a CMS that is better than others in terms of climbing search rankings? This question was answered in July 2022 by Google itself, in the person of John Mueller: there is no difference between one CMS and another in terms of content visibility on Google.
The choice of CMS is not considered a ranking factor and, in fact, it is therefore possible to create optimized web pages with any CMS. It is, therefore, not the choice of CMS that affects the ranking of the site but the way it is optimized.
The other key section of On Page SEO, as already pointed out, is content optimization. The activity of writing search engine optimized content is called SEO Copywriting.
To be optimized, content must be complete, relevant to keywords, useful, interesting, up-to-date, and unique (i.e., not copied from other sites).
Clearly, it is essential that a piece of content contain the main keyword within it, but be careful because today’s algorithms are much more sophisticated than those of the past, and practices such as “keyword stuffing” (the repeated and inordinate use of the keyword within the text) are no longer tolerated. In fact, thanks to modern semantic text analysis systems, today’s search engine algorithms include synonyms and related terms and tend to penalize content in which the keyword is repeated excessively and unnaturally.
Writing textual content in a natural way and making it interesting to users (and not to search engines): this, today, is the key to making content interesting even in the eyes of engines and gaining more visibility on it.
What is Off Page SEO
Off Page SEO (or Off Site SEO) is the area of search engine optimization that includes all SEO strategies and practices that can be implemented outside the site. Prominent among the various activities related to this particular area are those concerning backlinks, so-called Guest Blogging, and Digital PR.
The backlinks (link earning and link building)
Let’s clarify from the outset what backlinks are: they are links pointing from one page of a website to the page of another website. In SEO circles they are also called “inbound links,” or “external links.”
Search engines, with Google in the lead, believe that a backlink essentially represents a vote for the authority and credibility of the site receiving it. Therefore, the number of incoming links is an important ranking factor.
However, this is not a purely quantitative analysis: in fact, the origin of the link is also considered. Since a link from a site considered authoritative is worth more than a link from a site considered poor quality, it is possible for one site to be ranked better than another despite having fewer links.
The importance of inbound links for the purpose of ranking within search engines has led to the design of several strategies aimed at obtaining backlinks even in a non-spontaneous manner. These tactics are known by the name of link building. Be aware, however, that the inordinate use of contrived techniques to obtain inbound links (such as, for example, link swapping and forum spam) has prompted Google to update its algorithm and penalize sites that resort to such practices.
This is where the concept of link earning comes in, which refers to earning backlinks naturally. Clarifying what “natural” means in this case was once again Google itself, which said that the best way to attract quality inbound links is to create good and interesting content.
Guest Blogging and Digital PR
One legitimate method (if certain criteria are met) of obtaining inbound links is what is known as Guest Blogging (or Guest Posting).
To pursue such an activity, you need to contact one or more sites that deal with topics related to your startup (and that are deemed credible, both by users and search engines) and propose to write a blog article for them containing a link leading to your site. Be careful, however, to choose sites that, in addition to dealing with similar topics, also have targets that overlap with yours or, at any rate, target users you wish to intercept.
Speaking of Guest Blogging, Google, in 2017, explained that it does not discourage this type of article if it can inform users, educate another site’s audience, or raise awareness about a cause or company. At the same time, however, he also clarified that such articles violate Google’s guidelines on link schemes when the main purpose is to create large-scale links pointing back to the site. In light of this, the advice is to carefully select the sites on which you intend to publish a Guest Blog and write truly quality content.
Digital PR (where PR stands for public relations) is just as important for increasing a site’s visibility on search engines: it involves contacting news sites in your field or influencers who deal with issues similar to yours and proposing that they devote content to a story related to your startup, such as launching a new product or service or organizing an event or presenting a study.
Don’t underestimate this activity: startups, due to their highly innovative nature, have all the credentials to attract media attention.
Having shed light on On Page SEO and Off Page SEO, it is now time to introduce another type of search engine optimization: local SEO.
This particular type refers to optimizing a business website for local search results. On Google, these results appear in several places, between Maps and Search, and are shown to users who search for businesses and other places of interest in their vicinity or near a given location (for example: hotel Roma trastevere).
The optimization activity that goes by the name of Local SEO translates into practice by signing up for the free Google My Business service and refining your tab within it. You need to enter data such as business name and category, contact information, and opening and closing days and hours. An important role within Google My Business tabs is played by user reviews, which (as the business owner) you can respond to.
The tools for doing SEO
Knowing all the theoretical aspects involved in optimizing a site for search engines is not enough; to put all the notions learned so far into practice, you also need to know what tools to use. Below are the main tools for doing SEO, scope by scope.
- Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a web service provided by Google that gives information on how the search engine crawls, indexes and publishes websites. The organic traffic data provided by Google is valuable because it allows you to measure site performance and correct any errors, thereby optimizing performance.
- Google Analytics
Google Analytics is another service offered by Google that provides detailed statistics on user traffic and behavior. Based on this information you can better understand your customer journeys, optimize your content and improve the ROI (Return on Investment) of your marketing initiatives.
- Google Trends
Google also offers the Google Trends service, which lets you know how often you search for a particular word or phrase, current “hot topics,” and rankings. Research on the level of interest in a particular word or phrase can also be set for a specific country and a specific time interval.
Semrush is an all-in-one platform that helps you optimize your website not only in terms of SEO, but also in terms of content marketing, social media activity, and general advertising. In terms of Search Engine Optimization, Semrush provides technical tips that you can apply to improve your search engine rankings, as well as a list of keywords and related ones to use when creating content. But that’s not all: with Semrush you can also analyze the performance of competitor sites.
With Majestic you can view a site’s inbound links and analyze the anchor text used, the backlinks gained and lost over time, the topics and language of the domains from which the links came, as well as other valuable information.
The algorithm updates
In the previous lines, Google’s algorithm, by which the search engine sorts web pages in search results, has been mentioned several times. Knowing how it works is, of course, very important.
In 2002, Google’s algorithm was rather basic and easy to “get around” with specific techniques that, later, were discovered and neutralized by the search engine (this is the case, for example, with link exchange to do link building). Year after year, however, the updates have been repeated and today’s algorithm is much more sophisticated and also makes use of machine learning tools and Artificial Intelligence.
Keep in mind that Google algorithm updates are capable of affecting your site’s visibility both directly and indirectly: if you follow the advice on the best strategies for optimizing a site for search engines, the algorithm update may not directly affect your site’s ranking, but remember that other sites may gain or lose positions, and this will inevitably affect your visibility as well.
What is SEO audit
Frequent Google algorithm updates require constant monitoring of your site’s performance in terms of search engine optimization.
You should know that this is precisely where the SEO Audit comes in: this is what is called the comprehensive analysis from the SEO perspective of a website, On Site and Off Site, which aims to obtain a defined picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the website itself with regard to search engine optimization.
With the information you can glean from the SEO Audit (which highlights technical or structural errors, critical On and Off page SEO issues, User Experience related problems, and gaps in already published content) it is easier for you to take action to correct any deficiencies and develop a more effective strategy to increase organic traffic to the site.
SEO: practical tips for getting started
Now that you have all the theoretical and practical tools to achieve prime search engine visibility, you just need to know the latest tips before you get started. Providing them to you is Google itself, through its introductory guide to search engine optimization.
Google’s introductory guide to search engine optimization
Google’s introductory guide to search engine optimization does not contain within it any “secrets” to succeeding in automatically reaching the top position in Google results. Following its practical advice, however, allows you to help search engines scan, index and understand your site’s content, with obvious visibility benefits.
To bring your site to Google, the search engine first suggests submitting a Sitemap: this is a file that has the specific purpose of telling search engines about new or changed pages. At the same time, it is also useful to tell Google which pages it should not scan via the “robots.txt” file (remember, however, to use more secure methods to protect any sensitive data, because it is possible that pages blocked by robots.txt will still be scanned).
That’s not all yet: use structured data. These are codes that you can add to pages on your site to more accurately describe your page content to search engines, so they can better understand it and can use this information to show your content more attractively on search engines and attract the right target audience for your startup.
The ones just enunciated are just a few of the many useful insights provided by Google in its introductory guide to search engine optimization: if you would like to learn more valuable insights into how SEO works, from the “voice” of the world’s number one search engine, sit back and read it here.
Tags: Digital marketing