The SEO's Guide to the Galaxy

From basic SEO to advanced tips to increase your rankings

The goal of SEO, or search engine optimisation, is to make your website easily findable via Google or other search engines by getting your website or page on top of the search engine results page, like this:

First result in Google Search
One of my websites showing up as the first result for "Evernote para method"

While this sounds simple, SEO is a mystery to many, even those who’ve been exploring it for years.

The difficulty with SEO is that best practices keep evolving. While putting your keywords and its synonyms all over your article used to be a solid strategy, now it’s more important than ever to make your website user-friendly. You need to give your searchers exactly what they’re looking for.

In this guide, we’ll explore how to do that, and how to improve other SEO aspects like page speed and website structure.

What is SEO? (and what is it not?)

SEO often gets a bad reputation because the best practices from years ago had search engines in mind, not people.

Do you remember trying to find a recipe but finding a personal story, history and other nonsense instead of the ingredients and instructions?

That’s because long content with lots of keywords used to rank better.

Fortunately, these days are long gone. Now, the best-ranking content is the one that keeps the user in mind. It should be credible, relevant and usable. And that’s why finding a recipe should now be a lot easier than a few years ago.

“Contrary to what many people believe, SEO is not an effort to manipulate users and search engines. SEO, done properly, optimizes for the realities of how search engines work and people search.”

Eli Schwartz, Product-Led Growth

Another misconception with SEO is the way it’s measured. Of course, when your goal is to make your website findable, it’s easy to start measuring traffic, how many pages rank in the first position, etc.

But what you should really measure is how it impacts your business. Does it lead to more customers, downloads or revenue?

Search and user intent at the centre of your SEO

As I said, we’re moving to a user-based SEO instead of a search-engine-focused SEO because the algorithms behind the search engine are getting smarter—a lot smarter.
Before we dive into the typical keyword research and link-building aspects of SEO, we need to understand search intent. Why are people using the exact words they’re using in a search query?

"This is where search engine optimization (SEO) shines: it’s not what people type into a search engine that’s important but what it reveals about their problems, opinions, and behavior. … the better you serve that intention, the more helpful your content is, resulting in greater trust and credibility."

Andrew Gazdecki, Getting Acquired
what is search intent?
Figure out what someone wants when they type their query.

What are the types of search intent?

Depending on the source, there are three to five types of search intent:

  • Navigational
  • Informational
  • Transactional
  • Commecial
  • Local
 
Before you create any sort of content, you should consider what type of intent you’re addressing. It doesn’t make much sense to pitch a product to someone who’s looking for information, for example.
 
Navigational intent means someone is trying to get to a certain site or page. For example, they might be googling: “Facebook login”.
 
A query with informational intent should be answered with information. For example, someone might be looking for “how to post ads on Facebook?”
 
Commercial intent is when someone is looking to buy something but they’re still comparing options. A typical query might look something like “Best Facebook ads tool”.
 
A transactional intent is the next step: when people are ready to buy. Here, they might be typing: “Buy Hootsuite”.
 
Local intent, finally, is sometimes considered part of navigational intent. However, the purist in me agrees to separate them. Navigational intent is about online navigation and local intent about finding the best burger joint or closest pharmacy in town. 

The role of keywords in SEO

While putting in all of the right keywords—as many times as possible—is a thing of the past, you can still optimise your efforts with the right knowledge about keywords.

Keyword tools give you lots of ideas about what people are searching for. And putting these terms in strategic places will help you rank better.

How to find the right keywords?

If you’re reading this, it’s fair for me to assume you’re pretty new to SEO. This means you have no chance at all to make your website visible for competitive keywords like “marketing” or “marketing course”. With visible I mean a top 3 result, but even top 10 will be a longshot. 

And I don’t say this because you don’t have the skills. I’m saying this because these positions in the search engine results page are taken by brands that have been following SEO best practices for years. It’s just impossible to do better than them with a new website or new SEO effort.  

Instead of targeting these difficult keywords, you have to dig deeper. Keyword tools can help you identify keywords with lower search volume and lower competition. But don’t worry about this. 

One page can still easily get hundreds of visitors because it can rank for many related terms.

queries one page shows up for
Some of the 414 search terms one page shows up for.

Where to place keywords?

You need to place your keywords in strategic positions. Luckily, many WordPress plugins like Yoast can help you with this.

From my experience, and what everyone else says, these are the places that matter:

  • In your title (preferably at the start
  • In the first line or paragraph of your article
  • In subtitles (h2 and h3 tags)
  • In the body, but not more than 1 or  2%of your total words)
  • In the url of your page (short, and no _ but – to separate words)
  • In the meta-description of your page (use 135-160 characters)
  • In image names and alt descriptions
 

You can even take this a step further and add the words to the image. Google is smart enough to understand text from images and audio. It can even identify objects in your images.

Finally, remember to use similar keywords and synonyms. You should place these in your subtitles and try to repeat them in the first line of the following paragraph.

Some tools to find keywords and content ideas

  1. Ahrefs
  2. Semrush
  3. Keywords Everywhere
  4. Keyword Tool Dominator
  5. Wordtracker
  6. Wordstream Keyword Tool
  7. Keyword Surfe
  8. Ubersuggest
  9. Google Trends
  10. Google Keyword Planner>
  11. LSIgraph
  12. Google Suggestions and Google Related Searches

Keep in mind, however, that the search volume shown by these SEO tools is an approximation. You can never know exactly what people are searching for and how many times a keyword will show up. The only exact data is what you get from Google Search Console. But we’ll dive into this later.

The role of competitor research in SEO

Competitor research is helpful to find new keyword ideas but also to optimise existing pages.

If your competitor’s website is the first result, they must be doing something right. Find out what.

  • What’s the length of their content?
  • Where do they put keywords?
  • What questions do they answer?
  • How many links do they have?

 

And this leads us to the next section:

The ins and outs of links

Putting the right keywords in place is only a small part of the job. It means search engines can understand what your page or website is about. But there are so many other pages about the same subject. So search engines need to know who gives the best information.

One way to determine this is through users’ experience on your website and another is via links. If you get lots of links from trustworthy websites, search engines believe you must have something meaningful to say.

But links from other websites aren’t the only ones that matter. In fact, internal links are probably more important. It’s possible to rank without external links but I don’t believe a website without internal links is scalable. So let’s explore that first.

Creating an internal linking structure

Internal links are important for several reasons:

  • For users and search engines to easily find all your pages
  • For the authority that is given to your homepage from external links to flow to other pages*
  • For users to spend more time on your website

 

When you link articles to each other, you’re showing search engines that these articles are related. In other words, you’re showing that you’ve got a lot to say about a topic, making your website more authoritative on that topic.

*When someone links to your website, we call this a backlink. Backlinks give your website authority. (More about this in the section about backlinks.) Now, when that authority arrives on your homepage, you want it to spread to other pages of your website. SEOs call this link juice. With a clear website structure, all your important pages will get a similar amount of link juice. Sluuurp.

How to organise your content for clear internal linking?

There are a few ways to organise your content. You can do it at random, but some pages may be many clicks away from your homepage and others will be left without links altogether.

It’s better to use an organised structure with pillar pages and cluster pages. Pillar pages are high-level pages and cluster pages explore subtopics of these pillar pages.

The easiest way to organise your website is with a top-down silo. Your homepage links to the pillar pages, your pillar pages link to the cluster pages, and your cluster pages link back to the homepage.

This way, you’re “closing the loop”. This is important so search engines don’t come to a dead end when crawling your website.

A reverse silo uses the same approach as the top-down silo but your cluster pages also lead back to the pillar page and the pillar pages link back to the homepage. This adds more links, and thus more structure but also more complexity to manage.

A priority silo, finally, uses the reverse silo approach, but some pillar pages and cluster pages will also link to pages from other topic clusters. By linking more to certain high-priority pages, you’re leading more people to those pages and you’re also showing search engines these are more important pages.

Whichever approach you choose, make sure every page has at least one internal link. This makes sure there are no dead ends and your link juice keeps flowing.

Tip: The text that links to another page is called “anchor text”. Ideally, you want to use keywords from the page you’re linking to in this anchor text. But if you’re linking to the same place twice, change it up with synonyms.

How to use outbound links?

Outbound links get less attention than internal links or backlinks. Their influence isn’t as weighted as a clean internal linking structure and high-level backlinks. According to some myths, they might even harm your search performance, but as this outbound link study by Reboot shows, they do make a positive impact.

In short, you should include outbound links and they should link to relevant websites. Google suggests these links should be natural. If you link to your sources, that won’t be a problem.

How Many Outbound Links Should You Include?

Clients I’ve Worked With Typically Expect At Least One. The Consensus Among SEOs Seems To Be 2 To 4 Outbound Links Per 1000 Words, However. 

Some are afraid more backlinks might be seen as spam and harm your rankings. However, when your links are all relevant, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. (One of my best-ranking pages has 8 outbound links for 1300 words.)

Good to know: Regular outbound links have a “follow” tag. It’s good practice to make affiliate links or other links that may benefit you financially, “nofollow” or “sponsored” links. You can do this with HTML like this: rel=”nofollow” or just tick the “nofollow” box in WordPress.

Why Should You Include Outbound Links?

Outbound links show topic relevance. By linking to websites that talk about similar topics, search engines can better understand your website and link you to that topic. Moreover, when you link to authoritative sources, it’s a sign that you are familiar with your topic and so it benefits your authority (or EAT). 

Additionally, outbound links to more in-depth websites or sources help your readers. And if one thing should be clear from the first part of this guide, it’s that helping your readers is at the core of SEO.

Based on this sole statement, we can debunk the most common outbound link myth: “linking to other websites is like spilling your link juice.”

And that’s bullshit—pardon my french—even some experienced SEOs still believe. But just imagine that linking to other websites would be harmful to yours… No one would use outbound links. So no one would get backlinks. And getting backlinks to your website is one of the main SEO drivers. We’ll talk about that now.

The importance of incoming links or “backlinks”

Backlinks, or links from other websites to your website, are probably the most talked-about type of links. I’d even dare to say they’re quite notorious for a couple of reasons. It’s hard to get quality backlinks and that’s why many pay for a high load of lower-quality backlinks.

Nevertheless, when it comes to backlinks, quality beats quantity. And Google might even punish you for buying low-quality backlinks.

But why do backlinks matter?

Backlinks are proof that your content is of high quality. People link back to your website because you’re an authority and/or because you offer in-depth content.

They’re actually so important that it’s near-impossible to rank for a big keyword without backlinks. Some of my pages rank well without backlinks, but the search volume for the main keyword doesn’t exceed 100/month. If you’re trying to rank for competitive keywords like “Best SEO tool”, you’re lost without backlinks. 

Backlinks needed for top3 ranking
Backlinks for the best ranking domains for "Best SEO tool"

What Are Quality Backlinks?

Simply said, the Internet is a big web of interconnected websites. The bigger the number of important websites link to your website, the higher its value. And how do we decide whether a website is important? By the number of links it gets. You see, it’s all connected.

Many people believe .edu or .gov websites are more valuable than other ones. You’ll even see them shown separately in some SEO tools. However, Eli Schwartz argues search engines don’t care whether the website ends in .gov or .com. Government and education websites are more valuable because they typically get a lot of backlinks from other websites.

How To Get Backlinks?

There’s good and there’s bad news when it comes to getting backlinks. It’s pretty easy to get some backlinks, but it’s extremely difficult to get many high-quality ones.

As Tim Soulo, Ahrefs’ CMO, says in this thread, there are four ways to get backlinks.

  • Adding backlinks
  • Asking for backlinks
  • Earning backlinks
  • Buying backlinks

Let’s start with the easiest strategy.

Adding backlinks

You can start getting some backlinks by adding them yourself—to directories and social media accounts. I’m thinking of Google My Business, Facebook, local business directories and so on.

As anyone can add these links, logically, they don’t have much value. But they won’t do any harm either and at the very least, they may direct some people to your website.

A slightly more advanced strategy is to syndicate your content. This means republishing your content on websites like LinkedIn, Medium and Tealfeed.

This gives you the opportunity to try a different headline but Google typically doesn’t show two pages with the same content. That’s why they recommend “it is helpful to ensure that each site on which your content is syndicated includes a link back to your original article. You can also ask those who use your syndicated material to use the “noindex” tag to prevent search engines from indexing their version of the content.” Because you want to make sure your website ranks and not another page.

Finally, you can create videos and infographics and add these to YouTube, Pinterest and smaller directories as well as your website. This has a double benefit:

  1. A new specific backlink
  2. The opportunity to be found on YouTube and Pinterest, which are also considerable search engines
Buying backlinks

The second easiest strategy is buying backlinks.

If you run your own website, you might get some spammy comments from time to time. The website b2stats sound familiar?

It’s highly likely they paid to get millions of backlinks from comments on other websites. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these backlinks are pretty useless.

However, there are better ways to buy backlinks. You can hire companies to earn backlinks for you. Or you can earn them yourself…

Earning backlinks

The best way to earn backlinks is by creating high-quality content. When you create something so good that people want to share it, you’ll get backlinks naturally. If we follow Google’s logic, these should be the most valuable backlinks, especially when an important website links to your website.

Don’t forget to add share buttons so it’s easy for people to share your page via social media or email.

 

Another way to earn backlinks is by creating original content. Instead of citing sources, do your own research. When someone wants to write about that topic in the future, they might link back to your results.

Finally, you can earn backlinks just by being an authority. For example, I’ve linked to Eli Schwartz’ book. His book is of high quality but I wouldn’t have read it if he weren’t an SEO authority. 

Another way to get these types of authority backlinks is by appearing on podcasts, doing other types of interviews, or giving quotes for articles. Via Help a Reporter Out, for example.

But even if you are an authority, do original research or create high-quality content, the backlinks won’t always come naturally. Sometimes, you’ve just got to ask.

Asking for backlinks

If you believe you’ve got something of value to offer, there’s no harm in asking, right?

There are plenty of ways to ask for backlinks and some require more effort than others. Here are some ideas, more or less from least effort to most effort.

  • Exchange backlinks with peers.
  • Share with influencers. (Ask for feedback, not a backlink. If it’s good you’ll get an endorsement.)
  • Ask to be added to a curated directory. (E.g.creatordatabase.io)
  • Network with people (There are thousands of directories, but guess why I included the one above? I know the owner.)
  • Search for broken backlinks or backlinks to competing websites. Ask to replace them with your link and explain why.
  • Write a guest blog post for an authority in your field.

To be continued…