If you think the basics aren’t enough to get you ranked, think again. Most people running websites have a very limited understanding of SEO, so knowing the basics can certainly help you succeed.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this guide:
Let’s first make sure we understand the absolute basics of SEO, including why it matters and how it compares to other marketing channels.
Why is SEO important?
Most web traffic comes from Google’s organic results.
In other words: organic search accounts for more traffic than all other sources of traffic combined.
If you read our guide to how search engines work, you’ll know that Google and other search engines choose which pages to rank based on hundreds of signals. SEO is important because it’s the process of boosting these signals to rank higher in the organic search results.
What are the benefits of SEO?
Ranking higher is the most touted benefit of SEO, but rankings are really just a means to an end. Many of the real benefits of SEO are traffic-related.
1. SEO leads to more traffic
Because most people tend to click one of the first few search results, ranking higher usually drives more traffic to your website.
For example, look at the top three results for “submit website to search engines.” Using Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, we can see that the top-ranking page seems to get the most organic traffic, followed by the second, then the third, etc.
Our study found that these observations are generally true across the board, as ranking position correlates strongly with overall traffic to a page.
2. SEO leads to consistent traffic
Ranking in search engines usually leads to both consistent and passive traffic. That’s rarely the case for mediums like social media and email marketing that often result in traffic spikes that quickly fade to nothing.
This happens because social media networks are designed to surface fresh content. Emails often get marked as read, forgotten, or land in the spam box. However, because the number of searches performed on search engines is typically consistent from month to month, the traffic tends to be both consistent and passive once you rank.
3. SEO leads to ‘free’ traffic
Unlike paying for ads, search traffic is ‘free.’
That’s a big deal because ads on search engines can be expensive.
For example, according to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, the Ahrefs Blog gets an estimated 390k monthly visits from search engines every month. If we paid Google for that traffic, it would cost us an estimated $1M per month.
Of course, creating content that ranks in Google isn’t free—but it’s usually cheap compared to paying for ads.
How do you get your website on Google?
SEO helps you to rank higher, but you can’t rank higher if Google doesn’t even know your website exists in the first place.
Google will eventually find your website on their own, but there are a couple of key benefits to manually submitting your site:
- Faster discovery. Most new websites don’t have any backlinks from other websites, so it might take time for Google to discover them.
- Improve your website. Google Search Console gives recommendations on how to improve and optimize your website.
The first step to submitting your website to Google is to find your sitemap.
Sitemaps are files that list all of the important pages on your website. You can usually find yours by typing one of these URLs into your browser:
If it’s not there, go to website.com/robots.txt where it’ll usually be listed.
If it’s not there either, you probably don’t have one. Check out our guide to creating a sitemap.
The second step is to create a free Google Search Console account and submit your sitemap.
Getting your website indexed by search engines means you’re in the race, not that you’re likely to win. That’s where SEO comes in. SEO is an ongoing process that, if done well, increases your chances of winning over time.
It’s much easier to do SEO well when your website is properly set up for SEO success.
Let’s take a look at how to do that.
Get a good domain
Don’t panic if you’ve already registered a domain. It’s probably perfectly fine and won’t hinder your SEO efforts. But if you haven’t chosen one yet, it’s worth keeping these two attributes of a good domain in mind:
1. Domain name
Firstly, don’t worry about including your keywords. Your domain doesn’t need to be londonitalianrestaurant.com for search engines to understand what it’s about.
Here’s are a few attributes of a good domain:
- Is the name of your business
- Has no hyphens
- Is short and memorable
TLD stands for top-level domain. It’s the part after the name like .com, .org, or .co.uk.
Google’s John Mueller says your TLD makes no difference for SEO. However, for most businesses, .com is usually best if you can get it because it’s the most recognizable and trusted.
If you’re a charity, .org or your country equivalent (e.g., .org.uk) works too.
If you only do business in one country outside the US, your ccTLD (e.g., co.uk) will be fine.
It’s probably best to stay clear of TLDs like .info and .biz that tend to be associated with low-quality websites, but it’s not the end of the world if you have one. You can still build a legitimate website that ranks.
Use a website platform
Most people don’t code their website from the ground up in HTML and CSS. They use a website platform. These are pieces of software that allow folks with little or no coding skills to create a website, manage content with ease, and take care of boring technicalities.
There are two types of website platform.
Hosted platforms do everything under one roof. They host your website, provide ready-made designs that you can install and edit with ease, and let you create and manage content without having to touch code.
Self-hosted platforms also let you manage and create content without code. The difference is that you have to host and install them yourself.
WordPress also has a hosted solution at wordpress.com.
Which kind of platform should you choose?
Most SEO professionals recommend a self-hosted, open-source platform like WordPress because:
- It’s customizable as you can edit open-source code however you like, and there’s a vast community of developers who know the platform inside out.
- It’s extensible as there are millions of ready-made plugins that can extend its functionality, including thousands of SEO plugins.
If you want our recommendation, it’s a self-hosted solution like WordPress.
However, if you value ease of use and support, a hosted solution like Wix or Squarespace might be a better fit. The truth is that most of the well-known hosted platforms provide more than enough SEO capabilities for most people.
So don’t fret about moving to WordPress if you’re already using a different platform.
Use a good web host
Web hosts store your site on a hard drive that anyone with an internet connection can access.
If you’re using a hosted platform for your website, you have very little control over your hosting. But if you’re using a self-hosted platform like WordPress, it’s up to you to find somewhere to host it.
So how do you choose a good web host for SEO?
Most SEO guides say that dedicated hosting is better than shared hosting. That’s true, but it doesn’t make much difference until your website gets tons of traffic. Cheap hosting from any reputable company is fine for most people; there isn’t much difference in performance between hosts when you’re paying a few dollars a month.
However, there are a few things that do matter:
- Security. Make sure the host gives you a free SSL/TLS certificate or supports LetsEncrypt—a nonprofit supplying free TLS certificates.
- Server location. It takes time for data to travel between the server and visitor, so it’s best to choose a host with servers in the same county as most of your traffic.
- Support. 24/7 support is ideal. Test how good their support is by asking the questions above before you sign up.
Don’t fret about server location too much. If you find that speed is an issue, you can always invest in a CDN (Content Delivery Network). This creates copies of your website on servers around the world so that pages are always served to visitors from a nearby server. Setting up and using a CDN is outside the scope of this guide, but here’s how to do it with WordPress.
Create a positive user experience
Google wants to rank pages that give visitors a positive experience. They say so in their SEO starter guide:
You should build a website to benefit your users, and any optimization should be geared toward making the user experience better.
Here are a few simple ways to do this:
Nothing is worse for visitors than their personal data being susceptible to hackers. Always encrypt your site with SSL/TLS.
Choose an appealing design
Nobody likes a website that looks like it was designed in the ’90s. So while there’s no need to redesign your website every six months, it should at least be visually-appealing and reflect your brand.
Make sure it’s mobile-friendly
Google says more searches are now performed on mobile than desktop, so it’s critical that your website is as pleasant to use on mobile as on desktop.
Use a readable font size
People browse the web using all kinds of devices nowadays. Make sure your content is readable across the board.
Avoid intrusive pop-ups and ads
Everyone hates ads, but sometimes you might need them. If that’s the case, the key is to avoid intrusive ones. Google has some advice on what is and isn’t okay here.
Make sure it loads fast
Page speed is a confirmed ranking factor on desktop and mobile. But this doesn’t mean your site needs to load lightning fast. Faster is better, sure, but Google says this factor only affects sites that “deliver the slowest experience to users.”
Create a logical site structure
Both visitors and search engines need to be able to navigate your site easily and intuitively, which is why it’s important to create a logical hierarchy for your content.
The easiest way to do this is to sketch out a mind map.
Each of the branches in your mind map will become internal links, which are links from one page on a website to another.
Internal links are crucial for UX and SEO for a few reasons:
- They help search engines find new pages. Pages without internal links are rarely found and indexed.
- They help pass PageRank around your site. PageRank is the foundation of Google’s ranking algorithm that tries to determine the “value” of a page.
- They help search engines understand what your page is about. Google looks at link anchors and surrounding text for this.
Use a logical URL structure
URLs are important because they help searchers to understand the topic of a page.
Many website platforms let you choose how to structure your URLs. These are the five main options for URLs in WordPress:
- Plain: yourwebsite.com/?p=123
- Day and name: yourwebsite.com/2021/03/04/seo-basics/
- Month and name: yourwebsite.com/03/04/seo-basics/
- Numeric: yourwebsite.com/865/
- Post name: yourwebsite.com/seo-basics/
If you’re setting up a new site from scratch, it makes sense to go with the clearest and most descriptive structure. That’s probably Post name.
Using dates in URLs is also bad practice because you might want to update the posts in the future.
If you’re optimizing an existing website, it’s probably best not to change the URL structure—even if it’s not ideal. Doing so can break other more important things that will have a more profoundly negative impact on your SEO.
Install a good SEO plugin
Most hosted platforms handle basic SEO functionality out of the box, but that’s not the case for WordPress. It’s virtually impossible to implement even the most straightforward SEO best practices without an SEO plugin.
Installation is simple. Just go to:
Plugins > Add new > Run a search > Install > Activate now
Both of these plugins add useful extra input fields to your posts and pages. (We’ll come back to these later).
If you’re using a hosted platform like Wix or Squarespace, there’s not much need to install a plugin as these platforms allow you to make basic SEO adjustments out of the box.
By this stage, you should have a decent base for SEO success. But this is only the beginning. SEO is an ongoing process that’s broadly divided into four facets:
We’ve published beginners’ guides about each of these facets and so we won’t cover every nook and cranny here. Instead, we’ll focus on the basics and take a high-level view to help you understand why each facet is so important and how everything fits together.
Keyword research is the process of finding what your customers are searching for, how much traffic those terms can send your way, and how difficult it might be to rank for them. Let’s explore the basics of each of those steps.
Understanding what kinds of things your potential customers are searching for is the first step of the keyword research process. Unless you know this, there’s no way you can even begin to create pages that will rank in search engines and attract valuable traffic.
Brainstorming words and phrases that define your industry is the best way to start this process. For an online computer store, these might be things like:
You can then use these as ‘seed’ keywords to find more ideas. Just plug them into a keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and check one of the keyword ideas reports.
Look for keyword ideas that would be valuable for your business.
Check traffic potential
Pretty much every keyword research tool will show estimated monthly search volumes for the keywords it finds, including Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
Search volume is usually a reasonable way to estimate the relative traffic potential of keywords. Generally speaking, pages targeting high-volume keywords will usually drive more traffic to your website than pages targeting low-volume keywords.
But keyword search volume isn’t foolproof. There are instances where ranking #1 for a keyword with 1,000 monthly searches will drive more traffic than ranking #1 for a keyword with 2,000 monthly searches.
For example, “submit website to search engines” vs. “seo tips.”
Even though the former has a higher search volume, the latter’s top-ranking page gets more organic traffic.
So it’s always worth looking at estimated organic traffic to the top-ranking page to get a better sense of a keyword’s traffic potential. You can do this in Keywords Explorer.
Check ranking difficulty
Even if a keyword seems relevant to your business and has high traffic potential, it won’t always be easy to rank for.
Many things factor into the ranking difficulty of a keyword, but the number of relevant, prominent websites linking to the top-ranking pages is arguably the most important. Google talks about this in their guide to how search works:
If other prominent websites on the subject link to the page, that’s a good sign that the information is of high quality.
It’s partly for this reason that we based Ahrefs’ Keyword Difficulty (KD) score on the number of linking websites to the top-ranking pages. It scores each keyword on a scale from 0–100 and is a good first port of call when trying to assess ranking difficulty.
However, as it’s impossible to distill the complexity of ranking difficulty into a 1–3 digit number, we don’t recommend relying on it entirely. We go into more detail about assessing ranking difficulty in our guide to keyword research.
On-page SEO involves creating the kind of content searchers are looking for, and ‘optimizing’ it to help search engines better understand what it’s about. Most people think this is all about keyword placement. Although that’s part of it, it’s far from the most important aspect.
Let’s explore the basics of how to optimize a page to rank in search engines.
Match search intent
Fail to create the kind of content that searchers are looking for, and your chances of ranking are slim to none. This is known in the industry as aligning your content with search intent.
Because Google understands what searchers are looking for better than anyone, the best way to judge search intent is to look for commonalities among the current top-ranking pages for your target keyword.
For instance, the results for “SEO tips” are all list-style blog posts. Yet the results for “speakers” are all category pages from ecommerce sites.
This tells us that people searching for “speakers” are in buying mode and people searching for “SEO tips” are in learning mode. If we want to rank, we need to keep this in mind and create the kind of content that aligns with search intent.
Choose a descriptive URL slug
In the chapter on setting up a website for SEO success, we talked about using a logical and descriptive URL structure. For each page or post you publish, you also need to set a descriptive slug—the part at the end of the URL.
How best to do this depends on the subfolders before the URL slug.
Let’s say your target keyword is “black mens jeans.”
If your URL has no subfolders or generic subfolders like /blog/, just set the slug as your target keyword.
If there are ‘contextual’ subfolders like /mens/ or /jeans/, it’s usually best to exclude repeated keywords.
Write a compelling title tag
Title tags are the blue clickable links that show up in the search results.
It’s one of the few weapons you have to entice searchers to click on your page, so it’s important to make it as compelling as possible.
The easiest way to do this is to align it with search intent.
For example, if we look at the titles of the top results for “best bluetooth speaker,” there are a couple of commonalities:
- They all contain the year. This hints that freshness is important to searchers.
- There’s a lot of talk about portability. This hints at an important attribute.
Using this knowledge to our advantage, this seems like a pretty good title tag to go for:
Best Bluetooth Speakers (2021): Top Picks for Portability
Images can rank in Google Images and send traffic to your website. We’ve had thousands of visits from Google Images in the past three months alone.
How do you optimize your images?
Follow these three steps:
- Name them well. Filenames help Google understand the image, so cat.png is better than IMG_948493.png.
- Use descriptive alt text. Alt text is code that describes an image in words. It’s not visible on the page unless the visitor uses a screen reader or the image fails to load. Most website platforms have an input field for alt text when you upload an image.
- Compress them. Install a plugin like Shortpixel to compress your images on the fly and improve page speed.
Links from other websites act like ‘votes’ and show Google that people are vouching for your content.
They’re arguably the most important ranking factor, but getting good ones is not always easy.
Most link building tactics revolve around creating link-worthy content, then reaching out to site owners and editors with a compelling reason to add your link to one of their pages. But there are other ways to get links.
Let’s take a look at just a few link building tactics.
Guest blogging is where you write a blog post for another website. Here’s a guest post that Ryan Stewart wrote for the Ahrefs Blog in 2018.
If you look at the author bio, you’ll notice links to Ryan’s social profiles and website.
Most websites allow guest authors to add their links here.
One of the easiest ways to find potential guest blogging opportunities is with Content Explorer, our searchable database of over seven billion pages. Here’s how:
- Search for a relevant topic.
- Choose “in title” from the dropdown
- Check the “websites” tab
Here you’ll see the websites that get the most traffic to pages about your topic:
Because these websites have written about this topic before, chances are they might be open to a guest post about a similar topic. Just email them and ask.
The Skyscraper Technique is where you build links by creating even better content than what people are already linking to.
Here’s the basic process:
- Find a relevant piece of content with lots of backlinks
- Create something better
- Ask people linking to the original content to link to yours instead
Content Explorer is arguably the quickest way to find ‘skyscraper’ opportunities. Just search for a topic, then filter for pages with plenty of referring domains (linking websites).
Look for something you can improve on, then publish something even better. You can then plug the URL into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, find all its backlinks from the Backlinks report, and reach out to those people.
Pursuing competitors’ links
Understanding how competitors are attracting backlinks is the best way to create a link building strategy. If you can find patterns in their link profile, you know which link building tactics are probably the most effective for your website.
To do this, search for the keyword you’re targeting in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and scroll down to the SERP overview. Look for a page that’s similar to yours and has plenty of referring domains (linking websites).
If we do this for “SEO basics,” we see plenty of pages with lots of backlinks.
If we then click through to the Backlinks report for one of the pages, we can look for trends among its backlinks.
In this case, it looks like there are quite a few links from blogging guides.
So we could easily run a search in Content Explorer to find more guides to blogging, then reach out to their authors and suggest this post as an addition to their guide.
Technical SEO is the process of helping search engines like Google to find, understand, and index your pages. It can get quite complicated but as we already covered the basics when setting up a site for SEO success, we won’t go any deeper here.
For now, we suggest signing up for a free Ahrefs Webmaster Tools account and scheduling regular crawls of your website. These crawls check for 100+ SEO issues, including plenty of common technical problems.
If you find any worrying or technical-sounding issues on your site, read our technical SEO guide to learn more about fixing them.
By this stage, you should have a pretty good understanding of SEO. But how do you measure and track the performance of your efforts? The most obvious answer is just to track the amount of traffic your website gets from organic search.
If you’re using Google Analytics, you can quickly view your organic traffic by going to:
Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels > Organic Search
If you don’t use Google Analytics, you can check current and past estimated organic traffic in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.
If this number is going up, then you’re probably doing something right.
You could also track keyword rankings in Rank Tracker. If you’re ranking #5 for a keyword one month and #1 the next, then that’s another sign that you’re doing something right.
However, while there’s no harm in keeping an eye on organic traffic and rankings, these two things are known as vanity metrics because they often bear no relationship with your overall marketing or business goals.
It’s much better to track metrics that have actual business impact.
Let’s explore just a couple of these metrics.
Monitor organic Share of Voice (SoV)
Organic SoV is the visibility of your brand in search results compared to the competition. It’s important because there’s a relationship between SoV and market share.
You can track organic SoV in Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker. Just add the keywords that are important to your business and give them an appropriate tag.
From there, head to: Competitors > Overview
If you haven’t done so already, add some competitors. Then check the Visibility tab to see what percentage of all clicks for your tracked keywords land on your website compared to your competitors.
Track conversions from organic traffic
Conversions occur when a visitor to your website performs a desired action. That can be anything from clicking a link to making a purchase.
If you’re using Google Analytics, you can track conversions for purchases and pretty much anything you like. You can then filter for conversions from organic traffic and compare periods to see what impact your SEO efforts are having on the things that matter.
Many professional SEO tools cost upwards of $100 per month. Given that this is a guide to SEO basics, you may not be quite ready to invest that kind of money into powerful SEO tools like Ahrefs just yet. But not to worry. You can achieve a lot with free SEO tools.
Here are a few popular ones that help with each facet of SEO covered in chapter 4.
Keyword research tools
Find unique keyword ideas.
Generate hundreds of keyword ideas.
Check the estimated search traffic potential for the topic based on the top three results.
Check the Keyword Difficulty (KD) score of the keyword.
On-page SEO tools
Add title tags and meta descriptions to WordPress posts and pages.
Find missing title tags, meta descriptions, and alt text anywhere on your site.
Link building tools
See the top 100 backlinks to any website or web page.
Get link opportunities daily. (It’s technically more of a service than a tool)
Send outreach emails to link prospects. No fancy outreach software needed.
Technical SEO tools
Find index coverage errors, page speed issues, and more.
Find 100+ SEO issues on your website, including many technical issues.
Let’s wrap this up
Everything above should serve as a pretty thorough introduction to the basics of SEO. If you’re looking to learn more about the four facets discussed in chapter four, we have beginners’ guides to each of them.
Here are the links (we recommend starting with keyword research):