Over the past several years SEO has turned into a major buzzword. But as a web developer or designer, why bother learning it? That's for the marketing team to handle, anyways … right?
Think again. Because knowing SEO best practices can have multiple benefits. For instance, being able to drive more traffic to your own site, whether a blog or portfolio. Or, in the eyes of clients and hiring managers, it could make you more employable.
To talk more about the basics of SEO and how it works, I have Zak Cagaros, from the UK and author of Beginner's Guide To SEO ebook, writing.
Okay — Take it away, Zak!
What is Search Engine Optimization aka SEO?
The techniques used to help your website rank higher in search engine results pages are known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short.
SEO is part of SEM (Search Engine Marketing), which is a term that's used whenever all the different search marketing strategies are being discussed. Essentially, SEO is a way of getting unpaid traffic to your website. (Unlike using AdWords or other paid advertising in the search engines.)
Why is SEO important?
As a programmer or developer, you may be wondering why SEO is an important part of the online jigsaw. (And why it has any relevance to you!)
Well, on Google alone there are more than 12 Billion searches a month being conducted. And this number is only increasing month to month.
And, guess what? If your website isn't being indexed, it’s safe to say you could be missing out on hundreds, or even thousands, of opportunities for people to visit your website.
Even if you don't have your own site, being able to implement best SEO practices onto the site's of clients can make you more employable. (And ultimately be better for your pocket!)
How Do Search Engines Work?
The difference between success and failure in any marketing venture has come down to how successful you are online. Moreover, whether or not your product/service is visible in the ever increasing online competition.
Therefore, to rank well in Google or any other search engine, it is important to have a basic understanding of how search engines work. Using an analogy, we can better understand how search engines operate.
How Search Engines Work, Using an Analogy
Imagine you are a teacher (the search engine) at a school.
At the playground you blow a very loud whistle to get the children’s attention. You, the teacher, make an announcement saying that the local football club (I mean soccer!) has offered one ticket to the cup final for the student that is most interested in football.
Of course, all hell is going to break loose and every kid will put his hand up, shouting “Pick me!”
You, as the teacher, must pick the child who plays football (AKA, is relevant), is recognized as a football player (AKA, has authority), and has a certain skill level as well as availability on the day of the game (AKA, technical).
As the teacher, you start by sifting through the students and decide on a group of the top ten. You base this list of ten on several components.
First, you narrow the group down according to the kids who play football. In other words, are relevant.
Then, you check to see if any of the students are recognized as being top football players: in other words, they have authority. Of course, you will also consider which student is the most dedicated to football. As in, the student who lives and breathes the sport. The teacher will do this by seeing who is constantly talking, writing, and sharing football related links on social media.
Furthermore, you will also look at the more technical aspects of the student. In this case, the student's skill level in the sport and if they are available to attend the game on the given day.
After all these considerations – relevancy, authority and technical aspects – the teacher will then select a student to be at the first of the group. And that student will get the ticket to the game.
In a nutshell, this is how search engines – particularly Google – rank websites against a search query.
How do Search Engines Find Your Website?
In order for a search engine to provide results when you type in a query, it has a database of information available for it to utilize.
Realize that each search engine has its own way of gathering and prioritizing this information from websites. But regardless of what these techniques may be, the process is called “indexing.” Indexing is when a search engine attempts to scan everything found online today so that it has that information available in its database whenever a person enters a search query.
How is this done? Basically, every search engine has its own bots or crawlers. These are highly complex software scripts that are constantly scanning the web, indexing websites' content and following links from website to website.
Whenever your website fails to be indexed, it won't appear within the search engines.
Don't worry – more than likely your site will be indexed. Large search engines such as Bing, Google and Yahoo are continually indexing the billions of websites that exist today.
What does it take to Rank on Google?
It really isn't difficult to get your website indexed within the search engines. However, what can be challenging is getting your website to rank on the result pages for specific search queries, or keywords.
The search engines use three main factors whenever they decide on ranking in the Search Engine Results Pages or SERP’s – these are: relevance, authority and technology.
Basically, relevance has to do with what your website is about (titles, content, etc.). Authority looks at the number of inbound links you have for your site. And technology considers the sitemap, meta information and overall structure of your site.
One of the most important factors when it comes to SEO is relevance. The search engines don't only want to see that you're using specific keywords but it also wants to see how relevant your content is when it comes to specific search queries.
In order to do this, search engines don't only look at the text on your website itself. They also look at:
- How your website is structured
- What keywords are used within your URL
- How your page is formatted
- What keywords are in the headline that are also found within the content of that given page
Authority (aka Backlinks)
When it comes to SEO, keep in mind that it is constantly changing. As a result, the techniques that worked last month might get you penalized this month.
However, one thing that all search engines will rely upon is authority. AKA, the number of backlinks that you have. Therefore, contrary to what you might hear, SEO still relies heavily on links, as Google’s Matt Cutts talks about in this video.
Search engines will determine just how credible and authoritative a website's content is simply by calculating the number of inbound links that you have from other websites. (By the way, an inbound link is a link pointing to your site from a 3rd party site.)
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the more backlinks you have the higher rankings you will get.
Search engines also look at how authoritative these other websites are linking to you. Meaning a link coming from the New York Times is a lot more authoritative than one coming from a little website that was created a few days ago.
There are other components, such as what anchor text is being used (this is the text inside the
a tag) to link to your website and how old your domain is.
Even if you have perfect site content, URLs, and strong inbound links — your internal structure is important.
Think about it: in order for Google to crawl your site and index it properly, it has to have semantic HTML. You can read more about technical aspects of SEO here. Below I am going to cover two specifically: Meta tags and Schema Markup.
Meta tags are nothing more than HTML markup tags that give search engines more information about a web page.
However, this information is not visible to viewers of the site. Instead, it is written to assist search engines in understanding a web page.
Meta tags are placed inside the
head element in a web page and contain a name and content attributes. For example, the meta tag for this post that you reading could be:
meta name=”description” content=”SEO for programmers”.
Meta tags are one of the most important aspects on a web page because they give search engines a short description about the page. In addition to the description meta tag, there is a meta robots tag and the title tag. Refer to this resource on how to effectively use meta tags for SEO.
Schema markup is one of those SEO techniques that you will seldom hear about, but it can be one of the most effective techniques for getting quality traffic.
Schema markup is code you can put in your website's HTML that will help the search engines understand exactly what the information on your website means. It then helps the search engines to return more useful results to the user.
The following is an example of schema markup in action:
What you see above is a listing in the SERPs. Instead of just returning the normal title and a short description, the search engine has returned a schedule of upcoming concerts in Boston, Massachusetts.
Providing this sort of information, here concert dates and venues, is extremely useful to the user because they are able to glean details about an upcoming event that is linked to whatever they were searching for.
Similar schema markup can be applied to businesses and organizations in a range of industries. Google has a tool called the Structured Data Markup Helper that will help you to add schema markup to your webpages. Moreover, Neil Patel from Kissmetrics has a detailed step-by-step tutorial here.
Remember: Write for Humans First
In the end, search engines are very complex. But basically, they are trying to act like a human.
As you go about making your site more search engine friendly, it can be easy to get caught up modifying content to improve ranking within the SERPs.
But a rule of thumb: whenever you find yourself doing something just for the search engines, you should probably stop and remind yourself that you are writing for humans.
Nowadays search engines are so advanced that they can tell if your content is readable to a human or not. When it comes down to it, providing valuable and coherent content is most important. (Not keyword stuffing your pages or getting involved with dodgy link-buying schemes!)
Additional SEO Tools and Resources
SEO is a multi-million dollar industry.
The good news is that you don’t need to invest thousands in SEO services. In fact, learning the basics of SEO and executing a well-thought strategy in many cases is enough to get results you're looking for.
Below are a few tools and resources to help you with the SEO on your site or your client's.
1. Google Analytics (GA)
Google Analytics is one of the best analytic trackers available. GA will show you exactly who visited your website, their location, what device they were using, on which web browser, and so forth.
Even better, GA is absolutely free – all you have to do is install the tracking code on your website. And, of course, sign up for a Google account (if you don’t already have one).
2. Google Webmaster Tools
This is another fantastic and free service from the Google team.
Webmaster Tools has various features, including monitoring your site’s ranking in the SERPs. Oftentimes it can be used along with Google Analytics. (They have information sharing features.)
3. Open Site Explorer (OSE)
OSE is a popular premium backlink checker that allows you to analyze the backlinks of any given website.
OSE is comparable to majesticSEO, but what I really like about OSE is that you can see all the domains that are linking to a website without having to upgrade to the premium version.
Brian Dean, the creator of Backlinko.com, is one of the top SEO thought leaders.
On his website you will find a ton of valuable and actionable techniques to gain more quality backlinks to your site. It’s definitely worth a look.
5. Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress users
WordPress is a content management system that powers nearly 20% of the entire web.
While there are hundreds of SEO plugins available, in my humble opinion the best plugin for SEO is the WordPress SEO by Yoast. This helpful plugin allows you to write SEO optimized posts and pages across your WP site.
In fact, I have created an entire video tutorial series that will show how to use this plugin to optimize your WordPress powered website. Find it here.