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If I had to guess, you’ve heard of SEO and know that it’s important but it seems like some “super-exclusive operation” and you can’t crack the code. Well, you’re in luck because I’m here to crack that code for you.
SEO stands for search engine optimization. In simple terms, SEO is the strategic process of increasing the quantity and quality of organic traffic to your website from search engines like Google, and it is an essential piece of any successful business marketing strategy.
Now, success on Google doesn’t just happen overnight. As easy as it all may sound, it takes time and effort to create a successful SEO strategy; when you get there, the reward is oh-so-sweet!
So let’s dive into the basics of SEO.
SEO, short for search engine optimization, is the strategic practice of increasing the quality and quantity of traffic to your website from organic search results by improving or optimizing the pages of your website.
In simple terms, SEO typically involves:
There’s a lot of jargon used in the world of SEO so it’s important to have a solid understanding of key SEO terminology before diving in.
Something quick and very important I want to point out here, notice how I said “pages of your website” and not “your website as a whole”?
When it comes to SEO, you are optimizing each individual page of your website to rank in search results, not your website in its entirety. This is key to remember: pages rank, not websites.
First things first, I wouldn’t have created this post if SEO wasn’t important…and you wouldn’t be reading it if you didn’t think it was important either!
One of the most important benefits of SEO is that it acts as a 24-hour salesperson for you and your business. As you optimize your content and appear higher in search results, you not only increase the quantity and quality of organic traffic to your website, but you also increase your brand awareness. More eyeballs on your content and your business means more money in your back pocket.
Another reason why SEO is important is that it creates free and “passive” traffic to your website. And yes, the quotes around passive are necessary because nothing in business, especially in the world of SEO, is truly passive; there is always work needed to create and maintain.
Along the same lines, SEO helps to generate a positive ROI or return on investment. With high-quality content and a solid SEO strategy in place, your content can bring traffic to your website for years and years. What Instagram post or trending Reels audio did that for your business?! (hint…none!)
Another benefit of SEO is that it allows you to build trust with your ideal audience. Think about it…when was the last time you clicked on a search result that showed up on page 5, page 10, or page 50 of search results?
Probably never if I had to guess!
People trust the content that appears highest in search results, especially on page 1 the most. The content has essentially been vetted or “approved” by Google as being high quality, which is why they display the content high on search results.
By having your content appear high in search results, there is an automatic level of trust established between you and your ideal audience – and you can’t beat that!
Another reason SEO is important is that it isn’t going anywhere. It won’t up and disappear like MySpace and your top 8. It won’t panic the world like Instagram by saying they are shifting from a photo-sharing app to prioritizing video content. SEO won’t go out of style like skinny jeans and side parts thanks to all the cool kids on TikTok.
SEO will always be here and other platforms are embodying this, too. Instagram now has a search function similar to Google where you could type “couch,” for example, and you’ll get a curated feed of posts that mention the keyword “couch.”
YouTube, which you may just think of as a video platform, is the world’s second-largest search engine. And then there is Pinterest. Pinterest is more than just pretty photos and planning your dream wedding and future house. Pinterest is a visual search engine that displays visual results, or pins, based on a user’s search.
SEO takes time and effort, but the payout, if done correctly, keeps on giving! A high-quality blog post or piece of content on your website can bring in organic traffic for years and years. What Instagram post or paid ad has brought continual high-quality traffic to your website for years and years? Don’t think too hard – the answer is none. With SEO, the limit does not exist (yes, that’s a Mean Girls reference).
Now that you know what SEO is, let’s discuss how search engines work.
Search engines like Google use digital bots or spiders known as crawlers to gather information about websites and the content on the internet. The crawler starts at a known website and navigates through the site via internal links, external links, and backlinks. The crawler also reads images – they can’t actually see images but they can read what is known as alt text which describes an image.
These crawlers then put the information collected in a digital Rolodex, also known as an index. Think of this digital Rolodex as a library or filing cabinet of all the information, content, and websites on the internet. The crawler identifies how the pages of a website fit into the filing cabinet of all the content on the internet and organizes them for easy access.
When a user types a question or phrase, also known as a query, into the search box, the search engine uses a very detailed algorithm to pull answers from the filing cabinet. The crawler then displays these answers as SERPs, also known as search engine results pages.
So in simple terms, the process Google uses to rank content looks something like this…
When Google returns answers to a question or phrase that a user typed into the search bar, the page of results you see is known as a search engine results page, or SERP for short.
Most SERPs contain paid ads at the top, with organic results underneath. No two SERPs look the same as there are many different SERP features Google has. Based on the question asked in the search bar, Google picks which SERP features to display in a way that reveals the most relevant answers to the user’s question.
For example, the SERP for “how to write website copy” will look much different from the SERP for “craft breweries near me” – and rightfully so!
Understanding the types of SERP features that appear in Google search results is another important basic of SEO. Gone are the days of strictly 10 link-based results appearing per page. Now, SERPs can include various SERP features like a “People Also Ask” section, a local map pack, news results, or a “Featured Snippet” to name a few.
A featured snippet appears in what Google refers to as “position #0” which is at the very top of the search results page. This makes featured snippets one of the most powerful SERP features out there!
Featured snippets take up a decent amount of real estate in search results and highlight a summary of the most important information from a single webpage (remember, individual pages rank not entire websites). Featured snippets can be text-heavy and showcase a bulleted or numbered list, they can include a paragraph summary with supporting images, or these can showcase a clip from an embedded video.
The “People Also Ask” SERP feature is probably the one you are most familiar with and have interacted with before. It has a section heading that says “People Also Ask” and it lists several questions that are related to the original question the user typed into the search bar.
When a user clicks a question in the “People Also Ask” SERP feature, the box expands with a featured snippet inside as the answer. As a user interacts with this SERP feature, more questions will continue to appear at the bottom as Google is trying to provide them with the best and most accurate answer based on what they’re looking for.
If you are a location-specific business – let’s say a brewery, a hotel, or a wedding venue for example – showing up in a local map pack or “Places” SERP feature is where you want to be. The “places” feature showcases a map of the user’s area if they use “near me” in their search or it showcases a map of an area specified in the search question, like “craft breweries in Denver, CO” or “wedding venues in Harpers Ferry.”
The “Places” feature will also list the top businesses below it with a button to click to view even more. You can see how many reviews a business has, their location and hours, and any other relevant information that they’ve made available in their Google Business Profile (more on that later!).
Another SERP feature you may often see is known as “Related Searches.” This can appear at the very top of a search results page or at the bottom. This feature highlights things relevant to the original question the user typed into the search bar and highlights additional information that Google feels will be helpful to the user.
If we take the “craft breweries in Denver, CO” example, the “Related Searches” SERP feature may list “Colorado craft brewers” or “coolest breweries in Denver” with a list of more (and top) craft breweries in Denver that may be of interest to the user.
In the world of SEO, we’re focusing on organic search results and organic website traffic. Organic search results are those earned through an effective SEO strategy and not through paid advertising. Search engine results pages, also known as SERPs, are filled with organic results, paid results, and various dynamic results features like featured snippets, product carousels, map locations, or the “People Also Ask” section.
You’ll be able to differentiate the organic search results from the paid search results by looking for the small “Ad” text to the very left of the search result. It is typically in a bold font and listed next to the written URL above the title tag.
Unfortunately, ad results appear at the top of SERPs but 9 times out of 10, users are likely to click on an organic search result over an ad. It is said that only ~2.8% of people click on paid ads in search results, leaving 97% of people honing in on organic search results.
You don’t need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on ads to be successful and boost the visibility of your business. Organic search results are incredibly powerful! I like to think of them as freemium advertising for our business. A solid SEO strategy costs nothing but a little bit of time and energy, yet you receive the premium reward of appearing in SERPs like Google, driving continual traffic to your website (while you sleep!).
Going back to the basics of SEO, there are 2 sides to the SEO coin I want you to always keep in mind as well: user intent and quality of content. Both of these are important search ranking factors that we’ll get into in just a minute.
User intent refers to what people, aka your target audience and ideal client, are typing into Google. These are the questions they are looking for answers to and the topics they are looking for more information on.
Quality of content refers to the content – think blog posts, case studies, portfolio pieces, and the general pages of your site – that become the answers to the questions your target audience typed into Google.
Google is smart, like really smart. I’ve always preached how important it is to write for people, aka your ideal audience, and not algorithms or robots.
In the summer of 2022, Google released the ‘Helpful Content Update.’ And although this may have been more of a PR tactic than a true Google update, it proved this point of creating content for people first, echoing what I’ve been shouting from the rooftops! Plain and simple, the ‘Helpful Content Update’ states that content needs to be written for humans first, by humans, and be of high quality.
There’s something called Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines I want you to keep in mind when it comes to the quality of content as well. And no, Google isn’t wondering what you had for dinner last night or if you have any dietary restrictions.
Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines, one side of the SEO coin, ensure websites are providing users with experienced (E), expert (E), authoritative (A), and trustworthy (T) content.
But in true Stepf fashion, I like to take that a step further and refer to them as E-E-A-T-T guidelines, adding that content should also be timely, or relevant, which is where I get that second “T” in E-E-A-T-T.
When I say timely, I mean it in 2 ways:
I want to expand a bit on that second point from the E-E-A-T guidelines and talk about search intent.
Search intent is another ranking factor that Google considers. Search intent is the purpose of a user’s search, and it is often referred to as keyword intent or user intent – the other side of the SEO coin.
Search engines like Google will often interpret search intent based on what a person types into the search box and will show the user results that align with it. Understanding search intent can help you create content that meets users where they are in the conversion funnel.
There are 4 main types of search intent, and while they may overlap at times, it’s important to understand them individually so you can create the best content for your ideal audience.
The 4 main types of search intent are…
So why is understanding search intent important? The quick and easy answer…Google cares about search intent, a lot!
Yes, Google cares about typical SEO strategies and ranking factors like backlinks, page speed, etc. But if your content doesn’t satisfy search intent, why is Google going to serve it to users in search results?
Google is a business, too. So it is in their best interest to serve answers and results that best match a user’s question. If you were searching “the best all-natural dog treats” and the top search results highlight the best all-natural cat treats or cat toys, you’d be quite unhappy with the results.
Search intent is also important because it can help you improve your keyword research. Matching your content to users’ search intent helps to position you (and your business) as an authority and expert in your field.
And not to sound like a broken record, but this is why those E-E-A-T guidelines are SO important!
Now there are over 200 ranking factors that Google considers when it pulls content from its digital library or Rolodex to appear in search results. Yes, 200 is a lot but I don’t want that number to scare you! You absolutely do not need to know them all and we’re going to focus on the factors that play the most significant role to keep things strategically simple.
Out of the 200+ ranking factors Google considers, user intent and quality of content that we just chatted about are 2 of the most important. Google also considers things like page speed (how fast your website loads), if your website is secure or not (https vs http), and structured data – which is a bit more advanced.
A few other factors that I want to bring to your attention are domain authority and thin or duplicate content.
Now, domain authority isn’t actually a Google ranking factor (surprise!). Domain authority was initially developed by Moz, a popular SEO software, as a way to signal the likelihood of a website ranking in search results on Google. It ranks websites on a scale from 0 to 100, with 0 being the least likely and 100 being the most likely. Other SEO platforms followed suit and created their own version of domain authority as well…Semrush has Authority Score, Ahrefs has Ahrefs Rank, etc.
So although domain authority isn’t an actual Google ranking factor, the concept of domain authority and gauging a website’s performance can be used as a guide to know if your website is following basic SEO strategies or not. I urge you, no matter how hard it may be, to not stress over any sort of domain authority number you may see. I’m going to give you an example in just a minute to showcase this!
When it comes to content, Google is not a fan of thin content or duplicate content. Thin content refers to blog posts or pages of your website that don’t give Google robots much to work with. Perhaps your word count is low, you don’t link to any other pages of your site, or the content barely scratches the surface and therefore doesn’t truly match a user’s search intent.
Duplicate content refers to content that is an identical copy of content somewhere else on your website. It also refers to content that is nearly identical, where the content of the pages is the same but just the product name has been changed for example.
Now thin content and the concept of domain authority can sort of join forces and impact what content appears in search results. Here’s an example for you…
Website A has a domain authority of 85% while website B has a domain authority of 26%. Both website A and website B have blog posts on “The Basics of SEO,” for example. The blog post on website A is about 500 words and contains no images, videos, or infographics; it doesn’t include any lists and has just 1 or 2 subheadings. The blog post on website B is about 3,000 words and contains images, infographics, and has great use of subheadings and lists throughout the post to help make the content skimmable; it also links to other related blog posts as well as some industry-related articles to support the information being shared.
Which website do you think Google will rank higher in search results? Website A with a high domain authority and a thin blog post or website B with a lower domain authority and a robust blog post?
If you said website B, you are correct! That’s how important having high-quality content is and ensuring you keep those E-A-T-T guidelines in mind (and how domain authority isn’t truly a ranking factor).
We couldn’t talk about the basics of SEO without talking about the main types of SEO. The 3 main types of SEO are on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO.
Let’s start with on-page SEO.
On-page SEO is everything on your site that you can control to improve your website for higher rankings in search results. As a reminder, we’re optimizing the pages of your website not your website in its entirety.
On-page SEO includes things like optimizing your images, adding image alt text, adding title tags and meta descriptions, internal links, content readability, sentence structure, use of headings, and URL redirects to name a few.
Next, off-page SEO.
Off-page SEO is the exact opposite of on-page SEO. Off-page SEO is the strategies and techniques of things off your website that help drive organic traffic to your website. Off-page SEO includes things like guest blogging, being a podcast guest, optimizing your Google Business Profile, directory submissions, backlinks, and inbound links to name a few.
And last, technical SEO.
Technical SEO refers to tactics and strategies that optimize a website so search engines like Google can easily send their digital robots to crawl, index, and file the content. I know that definitely sounds a bit techy but I promise you it isn’t…and you might be implementing some of these already without realizing it, like having a secure site (aka, https not http – if you see a lock icon next to your website URL, your site is secure!)
There’s an analogy that the SEO platform Semrush uses that I love referencing when it comes to technical SEO. I’ve tweaked it a bit but it relates to the overall home theme of my website copy so it’s extra fitting!
Let’s imagine your website is a house and the rooms in the house are all of the pages and content on your website. The interior of your house (aka your website content) is worthy of a multi-page spread in Architectural Digest.
But when you take a step back and look at the house as a whole, the siding is falling off outside and the front porch is crumbling (aka your website has a bad user experience and takes forever to load), the house is full of wiring that is broken or leads nowhere (aka you have broken links and buttons that don’t work), and the front door sort of closes shut tight but you can’t lock it (aka your website isn’t secure).
With big issues like that, your house isn’t going to pass inspection and it’s very likely that the house won’t sell – aka your website content isn’t going to get the green light from Google’s robots to get added to its digital library or to rank well enough for users to find it.
There you have it – the basics of SEO that you need to know! Now you have a solid foundation and understanding of what SEO is and why it is important. Understanding the foundations of SEO will set you up for great success as you continue with your SEO strategy and content optimization.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you’ll want to check out these additional SEO resources!
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Through strategic Showit website design and done-for-you search engine optimization, I work with innovative and creative business owners like you to build magazine-worthy websites that effortlessly attract your ideal client—so much so that they’ll never want to leave.
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