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A St. Bernard
Jessie Perl

If you have a website, then you've likely been told at some point that you need to "do SEO." It's also a good possibility that even after a bit of searching you've no idea where to begin. That's perfectly understandable; SEO is complex and there's an overwhelming amount of content about it on the web, some good, some not.

Let me acquaint you with some of the very basics of SEO. In later posts I'll go into more detail about the topics we'll cover today, so be sure to check back often. For now we'll start with the essentials.

What does "SEO" mean?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. When a user types something into a search engine like Google, Bing, or Yahoo!, the engine uses several ranking factors to determine what sites show up in what position. Search Engine Optimization is the process of making sure that a web page is best suited to rank in the top spot for queries related to its content.

Why is SEO important?

Well, there are a couple of things to consider. Firstly, traffic that SEO drives is "free." By that I mean that unlike paid advertisements, a webmaster doesn't have to pay money directly to the search engine for listing the site. I should note here that there are, of course, indirect costs associated with SEO: creating content, hiring a search engine optimizationist, paying for advanced analytics tools and so forth.

More importantly, search engines can also drive a significant amount of traffic to a website. A study done by analytics provider Bright Edge found that organic traffic (traffic sent to a website from a search engine, not including paid advertisements) makes up 51% of all website traffic.

Most of that traffic will come from the top spots in a search engine results page. A study by advertiser network Chitika found that the number 1 listing in a Google search engine results page gets 33% of the traffic. The further down the listing was, the less traffic it received. Therefore, making a site rank in a higher position on a search results page will increase the amount of users coming to that site.

What things affect rank?

Remember those ranking factors I mentioned earlier? There are actually hundreds of them when you break them down. For now let's just look at a few general items that help a page achieve a higher ranking on a results page.

Keywords

Search engines want to show the user results that match what the user searched for. One of the main ways a search engine does this is by looking at the text on each web page. Specifically, it looks to find keywords and phrases that match or are similar to what the user searched for. If, for instance, the user searched for "puppies," the search engine may look for sites that contain the word "puppies," as well as phrases like "puppies for sale," "St. Bernard puppies," and "housetraining a puppy."

See how the two app titles in the photo above appear to be extremely verbose, and string together many commonly searched terms in an odd fashion? In the early days of search, it was common practice to "stuff" a page full of keywords like this, even if they weren't relevant. Search engines then were not very advanced, and would often fall for this trick. In order to combat it, pages that are stuffed with keywords are now penalized by major search engines, and appear lower in rankings. If this app were a standalone webpage, it would likely rank very poorly in a search engine like Google. Thus, while it's important to use relevant keywords on your website, it's equally important to incorporate them into your content naturally.

Links

With very rare exception, every major search engine looks at links to a site as a way to measure how popular that site is, the idea being that the more popular a website is, the more links it should have.

Like keywords, this was also abused in the early days, with webmasters building tons of links, often on sites designed only to link to other sites. Because of that practice, search engines now look not only at the quantity of links, but the quality of links. Links from well established, popular sites carry more weight than links from less established sites. Google will also punish sites that have links that look "unnatural," or in other words put there specifically by the webmaster that the site links to. It's important to earn links, such as by providing a tool or a piece of content that people want to share.

Crawlability

Crawlability you say, what on Earth is that? Search engines use programs, called "spiders" or "crawlers," to read the code that makes up websites. If a website has broken or poorly written code, it will make it difficult for the spider to read through it, and the spider will likely miss sections of the page or even entire web pages.

Google (and perhaps other search engines) also limits the time it will spend crawling one particular website before moving on to another. A website with poorly written code will take longer to crawl, meaning that Google's spider will be less likely to get to all of the site's pages in the time it has allotted.

Equally as detrimental to a site's crawl budget are pages that contain little to no value, such as exact duplicates of other pages (a problem often caused by content management systems like Wordpress and Magento). Such pages are best removed (there are also ways to tell the spider not to crawl them) not only because crawling them instead of more important pages is a waste of time, but the fact that Google will penalize these pages for being of little use to searchers.

These are just a few general ideas of what goes into how a search engine ranks web pages. As I mentioned before, the list itself is quite large and more than I wanted to go into in this particular beginner's overview. If you would like to dive in a bit deeper, take a look at Google's awesome Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what SEO actually is and why it's important. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter.