Introduction to Search Engine Optimisation: SEO for Beginners

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Anyone who is looking for something online, is going to find it with Google. If you wish to have your website show up at the top in Google’s search results, you need to have a well-managed long-term search engine optimisation (SEO) strategy. However, many of the tips and tricks of the past have become obsolete. Hence, Google is now more intelligent in filtering out the best possible results for any given search. Nowadays it is all about delivering high-quality content for happy website visitors. This introduction to SEO for beginners will get you well on your way.

In this post I will discuss the fundamentals of search engine optimisation and how Google sets the rules for this global game. If you are new to SEO and looking for an introduction to SEO for beginners, this post is for you! It will give you very good basic understanding of what SEO is all about. Also, you will gain a lot of insight into how Google works.

The post will cover the following points:

  1. Why is search engine optimisation so important?
  2. How does Google deliver its search results?
  3. How does Google rank its search results?
  4. Google’s rules for SEO
  5. What is black-hat SEO?
  6. How Google adjusts its ranking factors
  7. How to start doing SEO, where to begin?

Why is search engine optimisation so important?

Here is my free tip for anyone who has a skeleton in their closet: it is safer to hide it on the second page of Google’s search results!

Whoever wishes to generate traffic to their website through Google, needs to be aware of how people use their search engine. For any search done with Google, the first page or search results (SERP) is where you need to be. This magical first page displays the top 7-10 search results. Most users will find what they are looking for right then and there. Thus, they do not even look at pages 2 or 3. Therefore, if your website does not make it to the first page, you may kiss the idea of Google users finding their way to your website goodbye.

Globally, Google has the absolute power when it comes to search engines. With market shares anywhere between 80% and 95%, it is quite clear who the big boss is.

As a result of the huge amount of traffic it processes, Google can provide everyone with more tailor-made, detailed search results. Therefore, each user receives more exact and relevant results – especially if they have an account with Google. In that case, the user is feeding Google’s hungry algorithms with more and more information about their interests and preferences with every search they make.


SEO for beginners: how Google delivers its search results

How does Google deliver its search results?

So what does Google do then exactly? First of all, to be able to deliver any search results to its users to begin with, Google needs to have a directory of all the websites out there.

But how does Google find all the web pages in the world? Furthermore, how does Google find the best search results for a given search keyword?

To shed some more light on what happens behind the scenes, let’s take a look at the three different tasks Google carries out.

  1. Gathering information by crawling
  2. Building an index
  3. Ranking web pages

1. Finding information by crawling websites

It all starts with finding out what web pages are out there. After all, Google has to know what it can deliver to its users. To look for web pages, Google uses small programs called crawlers. The most well-known crawler is the Googlebot. These bots find their way to a website by following hyperlinks from other websites. Then, they analyse the contents of the website and send this data back to Google’s servers. After that, it is time to follow all the links on that website to find new ones yet again.

In this initial process of building the index, Google does not treat one page differently from the others. Each web page that the crawlers visit ends up on Google’s servers with all of its contents. However, websites with regular updates and high-quality content receive visits more often by Google’s bots. Even Google itself has to optimise its websites for its own bots!

2. Organising information by building an index

Now, once the bots have done their job, the crawled websites need to be organised into a directory. This directory is called an index. It is sort of like a giant phone book – just for web page contents instead of phone numbers.

Thus, whenever you look for something using Google, you are not searching through the entire Web. Instead, you are only searching through the index that these crawlers have built for the search engine. And this index is massive: according to Google itself, the directory contains over 130 trillion individual pages.

Now imagine having a phone book with 130 trillion phone numbers in it. Do you know how thick that phone book would be? While you are reading, I will do some counting…

3. Ranking web pages for search results

Once the web pages have been crawled and their contents organised into an index, there’s one more thing to do. That is to determine which web pages deliver the best search results for a given search.

Of course, the exact recipe of how Google ranks its search results is confidential. There are hundreds of different factors that determine how good of a match a website is for a given search. Hence, these factors are the magical components of the science called SEO, which curious SEO experts around the world are trying to figure out.

However, Google does occasionally give hints about which factors count as ranking signals. This information is official and therefore plays a big part in search engine optimisation in general. Let’s have a closer look at some of them next.

If you are interested in the technicalities of search engines, check out my previous post on how search engines work!

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How does Google rank its search results?

Ranking signal #1: Inbound links

Firstly, links pointing to a web page from other pages is one important ranking factor. It was this idea of considering inbound links that sparked Google’s success in the first place. Back in the late 1990s Google developed its original PageRank algorithm. This marked the end of the market leader at that time, AltaVista, and Google’s success story started.

Of course, the original ranking algorithm has evolved further but inbound links still play a big part as a ranking signal.

Ranking signal #2: Technical aspects

One further ranking signal is the technical execution of a web page. For instance, in April 2015 Google announced that its search engine would prefer mobile-friendly web pages for its mobile users in the future. This announcement started a new wave in web design, too, as web developers started to focus more on responsive design.

Ranking signal #3: Encryption with SSL

Another technical ranking factor is website encryption. A few years back, Google made it clear that HTTPS would also count towards a higher ranking in search results. So, if you are in the process of launching a website, you might want to consider adding an SSL certificate to it. But not just for Google: an encrypted connection is above all a good idea for the security of yourself and your visitors.

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Ranking signal #4: Page loading speed

Yet another technical ranking signal is the loading time of a web page. If a page loads slowly, making its potential visitors yawn and lose their patience, they return to Google’s search results. Of course, Google notices this behaviour, which is a negative user experience indication. The page was loading too slowly or it did not offer the content the user was looking for. Hence, the longer a visitor stays on a web page, the more likely it is that the user found good content.

Ranking signal #5: Quality of content

Speaking of good content, it is the general guideline for web masters above all other tricks, gimmicks, and spells. Ranking high with Google in the long run is possible only if your website offers high-quality contents that your visitors find interesting.

In my opinion, this is what SEO should be all about: delivering information and content that is useful, helpful, or entertaining. Therefore, help your visitors and offer them answers to their questions. Or make them spend time on your website by making them smile or laugh. That is what the Web is about these days – people are looking for either information or a good time. And trust me, Google will know where they find what they are looking for.

Rules for the SEO game with Google

As the most popular search engine on the planet, Google obviously has power. Lots of it. It can therefore define the rules for its own game: in addition to the ranking signals publicly announced, Google also has some guidelines for web masters. They define what is allowed in search engine optimisation and what is not.

First and foremost, Google is interested in good content. For instance, the word count of a web page is one indicator for content quality. Therefore, a page should have enough text on it, but not too much. According to one study analysing first-page search results, the average word count of the highest-ranking pages was 1890 words.

Regular updates for ranking algorithms

It does not come as a surprise that Google is constantly adjusting and updating its ranking algorithms. Occasionally, these updates tend to cause some grey hair for SEO experts: a high-ranking web page can suddenly lose its position to a bunch of competitors.

For example, the Panda update in 2011 was a major step towards a more user-friendly ranking. If a web page was optimised solely for Google instead of human beings, its ranking dropped with Panda. Hence, Google sent a clear message with Panda: websites should be developed for people, not for search engines.

Another well-known update, Hummingbird, was released in 2013. It aimed at starting a new era of interaction between Google’s search engine and its users. With Hummingbird, the search engine is able to understand longer, more conversational searches and put them into context. This goal of trying to judge the intent of a user in order to determine what they are trying to find out is called semantic search. With Hummingbird, Google’s ambitious mission of enabling a more natural conversation of their users with the search engine made a big leap.

RankBrain: artificial intelligence adjusting the algorithm

As of October 2015 Google has been using a self-learning artificial intelligence system called RankBrain. It takes search queries with multiple meanings and tries to understand them better to deliver better search results. According to Google itself, RankBrain was among the top three ranking factors only after a few months of operation – alongside with inbound links and high-quality content.

The AI system does its learning offline, analysing historical search queries and making predictions on new ones. If it does a good job, an update goes live and the findings are incorporated into the ranking algorithm.

The exact future implications of RankBrain for SEO are difficult to predict. But one thing is crystal clear: tricking the algorithm for higher rankings will only become harder.


Playing tricks on Google has its price

Whoever holds the #1 spot for a search query, can most likely use it to boost their business. Therefore, the top spots for commercially interesting queries are particularly valuable and sought-after. Thus, it is no wonder that many website owners have had the temptation to use the dark side of the SEO force.

Black-hat SEO strategies

There are a number of tricks that can be used to deliberately break the rules of the search engines. These so-called black-hat strategies are used to improve the ranking of a website. One well-known strategy back in the day was to spam a web page with keywords. By setting the text color to match the background, users would not see the keywords but the crawler would still find them. Thanks to the Panda update in 2011, this trick is long obsolete.

Nowadays, most black-hat strategies focus on fast ways of building inbound links. For instance, you could stuff one website with keywords and illegally copied content and then create links to the target website. By doing this, you could boost the target website’s ranking.

SEO for beginners: black-hat SEO strategies are penalized by Google

Of course, Google is smart. It finds out about any dubious activities and gives the websites owners a well-deserved prize. Most often, the search engine identifies such tricksters automatically and removes their websites from the index. Additionally, an entire team is doing manual controlling, trying to spot potential ranking manipulations by hand. Thus, aiming at the top spots in search results using black-hat strategies is like playing with fire – it often comes with a price.

As a less risky alternative, two website owners can agree to exchange links. If you don’t go over the top with it, it is a safe way to perhaps increase your ranking. Hence, taking this link exchange too far, using an excessive volume of links, may also backfire if Google thinks it is not serving a purpose.

Grey hat SEO strategies

There is also another category of SEO strategies that don’t quite play by the rules. The so-called grey-hat methods are not quite as naughty as the black hat ones. For instance, one could create specific SEO content that is not written for humans but rather for feeding the hungry crawlers with keywords. Perhaps you have been on a website some time, thinking the text sort of makes sense but it is not easy to read. Or that you need to read one sentence over and over again to understand it. Text like this is actually readable but it is not particularly valuable to a reader. Instead, it is most likely written for the Googlebot.

All in all, as Google says itself: whatever it is you do with search engine optimisation, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Am I doing this to help my visitors?
  2. Would I do this if there were no search engines?

If the answer to either one of these is anything else than a straight “yes”, I would recommend giving it a second thought.


Google’s rules are changing

To keep black-hat strategies at bay and to improve its search results, Google is constantly updating and changing its rules and guidelines. Old tricks from the dark side of SEO can suddenly become obsolete because too many web pages have used them already.

For Google, the user is the focal point of the entire search engine. The user, the curious customer. And thus, in order to be able to offer them better search results and high-quality information, Google is doing more and more thinking. For example, putting a search query into context based on the location of the user. Whenever you search for “gas station” using your phone, it is important that you find a gas station close by. You are not interested in the one that has hired the world’s leading SEO team.

Additionally, it isn’t even necessary anymore to click on a link to a website in the search results. For certain queries, Google can already answer your question itself. Alternatively, if you search for a supermarket closeby, Google will also show you how long you still have to get your groceries before they close, for example.

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Where to start? SEO for beginners

All in all, SEO is so much more than simply creating a website with a nice structure and making it look pretty. SEO entails so much more than just the technical aspects of web design. It has become a comprehensive, diverse field of different measures for managing the value of your website to its visitors.

However, not all website owners have the resources to stay on top of their game with SEO by analysing every update Google releases. Furthermore, SEO is above all a strategic measure for the long run, requiring time and effort. It will take a minimum of 3 to 6 months to harvest the first fruits of your optimisation efforts and see more visitors finding your website using Google.

Of course, it is possible to let an agency specialised in search engine optimisation do the work. However, as a general rule of thumb for choosing between the ones out there: any agency that is serious about what they do, does not promise quick results or top rankings to their clients.

You can of course do your search engine optimisation yourself, too. For instance, start with Google’s own guidelines for web masters, that is SEO for beginners at its best! Doing your own SEO is also clearly the more affordable option compared to an agency. Luckily, the first steps and the basic technicalities around it are quite straightforward.

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Summing it up: SEO for Beginners

SEO is here to stay. It is an exciting and interesting way of managing your website and the traffic you generate through search engines. I hope you found this guide about SEO for beginners helpful for understanding the very basics.

To wrap it all up, here are the three most important points to keep in mind if you are new to SEO:

  1. Always make sure your focus is on the user, with both the visual and the technical side of your website.
  2. Try to build some inbound links, start by doing some networking in your field.
  3. Take good care of your visitors. Happy visitors send a positive signal to Google, so provide them with interesting and engaging content. 

To start off, consider using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress and pair it with the right plugin. That alone will already get you quite far. And who knows, seeing the first visitors find your website using Google might just awaken the SEO monster in you!

If you are working with WordPress, you might find my post about how to use the Yoast SEO plugin for your WordPress SEO quite helpful!

Oh and btw, remember that phone book I was talking about earlier? Well, assuming 160 web page URLs on one page, the phone book with the entire Google index in it would be around 50,000 miles thick!

That’s TWICE around the globe!

Thanks for reading! Please share your thoughts and feedback about the post in the comments below!