What is SEO?

Updated November 20, 2015

Put simply, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) involves doing things to make search engines like your site more.

What is SEO?

Why would you want the search engines to like your site more?

Because then, when people are googling or searching for topics you write about, the search engines will be more likely to suggest your site as a place to go for the information (above others who talk about the same topics).

To understand SEO better, let’s go back a few steps.

I once designed a business website for a friend who is a professional organizer. After her site was complete, we had a discussion that went something like this:

Her: I want some business! We just launched my website. Why isn’t anybody calling?

Me: Because having a website alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll be found.

Her: But why? It seems to me, if someone googles “professional organizer in [her city]” my site should come up. But it doesn’t. Why not?

It’s a good question (and one she found highly frustrating).

The truth is, landing on the front page of the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page) is no small feat.

In a sea of billions of webpages, ranking among the top dozen or so for a particular search term is extremely difficult. There’s a lot of competition!

But let’s back up even more.

How search engines work, in a nutshell

Search engines use electronic robots (a.k.a. bots, spiders, etc.) that march around or “crawl” the internet constantly. This is what they do:

  1. Visit & revisit web pages. The term “web pages” here is a general internet term referring to an single page of content online. “Web page,” or “page” as they are sometimes called, shouldn’t be confused with a WordPress Page (vs. Post). In this context, both WordPress Pages and Posts are considered “web pages” or “pages” since they each are a single piece of content with a unique web address (“URL”). Confusing I know.
  2. “Index” (categorize & organize) the information contained on those web pages.
  3. File & store that information away so when someone is searching, it can be found quickly. (Imagine if all the billions of pages on the internet weren’t organized in some way!)

This is helpful because when you, a human, are searching for something online, this is what happens:

  • You hop onto Google or another search engine
  • Type in your search term or phrase (“query”) and hit enter
  • Google quickly looks through the web pages its bots have indexed (see above), and gives you a list of search results that are, ideally, exactly what you’re looking for.

Google determines which search results to show you based on many, many factors. The exact formulas (“algorithms”) for these results are closely-guarded secrets and highly complex. And they change CONSTANTLY.

What does this mean for bloggers and website owners?

A search engine like Google is important because when a web page on our site shows up on the first page of the search results for a particular search, it is very valuable. It’s like a golden needle getting found in a haystack.

Not many searchers click over to the second page of search results (do you?). If your site appears on the first page for a particular search, it’s huge. It means more traffic for you.

So, bloggers and website owners around the world are constantly trying to make their site more SEO-friendly so the search engines will show their site’s pages on that front page.

Of course, getting there won’t happen at all if the search engines don’t know your site exists in the first place. As I briefly mentioned above (but I’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating), when your site has been indexed, it means:

  1. Bots (spiders) found your site (yay!)
  2. They crawled through it
  3. They figured out what your blog is about by reading your content
  4. They organized, filed & stored the information about your blog’s pages in their gigantic collection of indexed webpages
  5. They determine how your page ranks among similar pages on the internet (based on various secret formulas and algorithms).

So, what is SEO again?

SEO is about doing everything you can to remove any barriers the bots might encounter during those 5 steps.

It’s about making your site easy to read and really attractive to the search engine spiders. If the spiders can move easily through your site and get a good idea of what it’s about without getting hung up on broken links or dead ends, they’ll remember you as a good source.

And when someone searches for topics you talk about, hopefully the search engines remember to recommend your site as a source. And on the front page of the SERPs would be a major score!

10 SEO tips

There are many factors that determine whether or not your site will come up on the first (or 2nd, or 3rd, or 57th) page of search results.

Many of these factors are completely out of your control. However, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of landing in a favorable spot. Here are my SEO tips.

1. Make your site mobile-friendly

There are plenty of themes with this baked right in. Here are the themes I recommend.

2. Make your site load fast

Remove things on your site that slow it down. Use as few plugins as possible. Don’t use random widgets, gadgets and apps. Use a well-built WordPress theme. Use this tool to see how fast your site is. Above 80 is ideal.

3. Optimize your images

Don’t upload images directly from your camera to your site. Resize them. Compress them. Use alt tags. Get details about how to do these things in this post.

4. Understand & use keywords

Keywords are the words or phrases that sum up what a piece of content is about. For example, the main keyword on my post about blogging for money is “how to make money blogging.”

If you’re a blogger or website owner, keywords are the words or phrases search bots associate with the content on your web page. If you’re the one searching for this topic, keywords are the main terms you’ll type into Google or another search engine.

Now that you understand keywords, use them in your content so the search engines know what your content is about and how to categorize it.

Not sure what the best keywords to use are? How would someone search for the information in your post or page? What would they type into Google? Those are likely good keywords you can use in your content—in the body of your posts or pages, in your permalinks and even your domain name when appropriate. If you use an SEO plugin like Yoast’s (see below), it’s easy to include keywords in your meta descriptions as well.

5. Use long tail keywords

Long tail keywords have 3+ words in them. “Keyword” is a bit of a misnomer since they are really more like phrases or strings of words, but you get the point. Long tail keywords often return better search results for real people and are therefore more useful for bloggers and website owners.

For example, my daughter and I were looking for items she needs to make paper beads, specifically glaze. When I searched, I didn’t use the term “paper beads.” Instead, I used “best glaze for paper beads.” The latter returned much more relevant results for me, and would be a better keyword choice for someone writing about it.

Short keywords with one or two words (like “dog” or “cake recipes”) are very difficult to rank for these days, simply because there are so many sites competing for them. So use keywords that are longer and more specific.

6. Don’t use too many of the same keyword

Some people use keywords in an unnatural way in the hopes of improving their SEO. Search engines see right through this tactic and will often tag a site as spam when they see “keyword stuffing.” If you write normally, for humans, you won’t have a problem.

Also, don’t use the exact same keyword word or phrase over and over in your content. Mix it up. Use keywords that are similar. If you’re talking about mowing the lawn, use “mow the lawn” but also use “how to edge properly” and “types of lawn mowers” and “best lawn mower brands,” etc. Think of related ideas or concepts someone might be curious about if they are searching for information about mowing their lawn.

7. Use Yoast’s SEO plugin

The WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast gives you a lot of SEO functionality without you having to think. It’s a solid plugin and it’s free. Here’s Yoast’s documentation for the plugin.

8. Get worthwhile backlinks

A backlink is an incoming link to one of your site’s pages. (A “page” here is a general internet term referring to a single piece of content. Any WordPress Post or Page is a “page” in this general sense.)

For example, here’s a post on ProBlogger in which he links to my post, How to Make Money Blogging. That link on ProBlogger is a backlink for me because it’s an incoming link to my site. Make sense?

As far as we know, the number and kinds of backlinks you get to your site impact your SEO. There are good backlinks and bad backlinks. Obviously and unfortunately, you can’t always control who links to you, but there things you can do to try to get good backlinks.

You can try to guest post on sites that are well-regarded, have been around for a long time and produce excellent content. Work hard on building meaningful relationships with others online so that if and when the decide to share your content, you will benefit from those backlinks.

9. Change your permalinks with caution

Once you’ve published content, don’t change your permalinks either sitewide (in Settings > Permalinks) or on individual posts or pages, without redirecting the old URLs.

You see, each time you publish a piece of content on your site, it is assigned its own URL. This is its unique web address. If you change an already-published URL, anywhere that link has been shared (on other sites, on social media, etc.) it will no longer work since it is now different. Broken links are not good for SEO.

10. My absolute best SEO tip

I hear from a lot of bloggers who worry about SEO. Many times they ask me what they should do to improve their SEO and what I do to improve mine. Here’s the deal: I hardly spend any time on SEO.

Write great content. Excellent content is the only thing that has consistently withstood the dramatic algorithm changes I’ve watched over the years. You just can’t go wrong with solid, original, high-quality content. (That’s not just me, Matt Cutts (of Google fame) says it.) A lot of people spend a lot of time and money on SEO but the truth is, writing good content on a regular basis, in the long run, will be best for your SEO.

The bottom line

Is SEO real? Yes. Is good SEO helpful? Sure. But if you’re like me and you’ve got limited time, stress less about SEO. Note the tips above, but most of all, write good stuff! Write helpful stuff! Get involved in community. Be authentic. Build relationships and let your great content work for itself.