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What is SEO? Ultimate Guide To Becoming An SEO Expert

Philip Westfall, February 3, 2019

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.

Although SEO is often seen as a broad and complex topic, it doesn’t have to be difficult.

The following guide breaks down everything you need to know about SEO into easy-to-digest articles and videos that you can consume at your own pace.

To save you hours of searching online, we’ve handpicked the best content from the top SEO experts online today.

Note 1: There’s no fluff here. Every strategy discussed below is industry-proven and has been used by our team to dramatically improve our organic search performance.

Note 2: Because SEO is constantly changing over time, the content in this guide is continuously monitored for accuracy.

Let’s get started.

What is SEO?

Traditional definitions of SEO look like this:

“Search engine optimization is the process of improving the rankings of a web page (or website) in a search engine, such as Google, in order to drive “organic” or “unpaid” traffic.”

This process has three main components:

However, to become a true SEO expert, you need to understand that EVERYTHING can have an impact on your search rankings.

Here are just a few examples:

As you navigate through this guide it will become very clear what SEO is and where search engine algorithms are headed in the future.

Tips for reading the guide:

Note: Throughout the guide, we will link to both free and paid tools. The solutions are ranked based upon value, not cost. It is simply impossible to become an expert at SEO without investing in certain tools. 

SEO Guide 2019:

Website Audit

This is an essential step to ensure your website is being properly indexed by Google and that there are no technical issues holding your website back from performing in search.

For example, a slow website can be detrimental to your rankings.

This 16 step website audit, created by Joshua Hardwick, takes a few hours and costs $7 if you don’t already have a subscription with Ahrefs.

On top of being beginner-friendly, the audit mentioned above can help uncover immediate wins that can have a dramatic impact on your search performance.

The article even includes a live site audit showing you how it can be completed in under 20 minutes.

Keyword research

Keyword research is one of the most important components of SEO.

If the content you create is targeting the wrong keywords, one of two things will happen:

To avoid these problems, you first need to come up with a framework that:

Regardless of the strategy or tools you decide to use for your keyword research, it’s important to respect the two statements above.

The following are two examples of how to structure your keyword research.

1. Topic mind map with business value keyword segmentation

This is the exact strategy we used at PageCloud. It was developed by combining multiple techniques that we tested over time.

Step 1 - Selecting topics and subtopics

To create your content mind map, you will need to brainstorm the main topics and subtopics for your blog or website. The goal of the mind map is to drive keyword research, content production, and overall content strategy.

Ideally, this brainstorming session is a group exercise to remove personal bias and to align all content efforts.

Because PageCloud is a website builder, our main topic is “website(s)”. As subtopics, we’ve decided on “Design”, “Content”, “Marketing”, and “Software”. You can continue to break down topics into additional subtopics to help drive your keyword research.

Keep in mind that your mind map should contain topics, not keywords.

Keywords will come later.

Step 2 - Create your mindmap

There are several tools you can use to create your mindmap. We’d recommend using coggle as it’s free and easy to use.

Once you’re done, download your mind map to use as a reference for the next steps.

Step 3 - Find relevant keywords

Note: As you come up with keyword ideas, we’d recommend adding them to a spreadsheet. More on this below.

Seed keywords

Using your mind map as a guide, you will want to come up with a list of seed keywords related to your subtopics. For example, if you’re in the health and fitness category, you might have a subtopic called “diets”.

From that subtopic, you could come up with:

There are a million ways to come up with keyword ideas. Here are some of the most popular:

Competitors

A very efficient way to come up with keywords ideas is to look at the queries your competitors are already ranking for. If they are competing with your seed keywords, chances are they are ranking for many relevant keywords you haven’t even considered.

The only downside to this technique is that it costs money. We have yet to find a free tool that provides accurate keyword ideas that can be sorted and filtered based on a competitor’s URL.

Here are the top three tools that provide this feature as well as how to use them:

Side note: All three tools start at $99/month. At PageCloud, we use Ahrefs.

Step 4 - Refining your keyword list

Now that you’ve got endless keyword ideas, it’s time to refine your list based on:

Here’s why these three filters are essential:

Search volume: if there isn’t sufficient search volume, there is no point in spending time and effort to produce content that won’t be seen.

Business value: if your target keywords aren’t driving qualified or at least potential leads, your business will not benefit from an increase in traffic.

Keyword difficulty: if the keywords you’re targeting are too competitive, it can be almost impossible to rank for them.

At PageCloud, we use the list feature within Ahrefs Keyword Explorer to help manage and provide data for the large number of keywords we’re tracking.

Once the keywords get past an initial screening of quality (based on the criteria above), we add the best keywords to an AirTable spreadsheet so they can be prioritized.

As you can see, the columns are based on this same criteria.

Keyword / Topic

The “parent keyword,” also known as the main keyword the upcoming article will target.

Search Vol (US)

Monthly search volume estimates in the United States for a given keyword. This gives us a quick overview of whether the keyword is worth pursuing.

Business Value

To fill this column, we ask ourselves: “How important is our product in relation to this keyword/topic?”

If there is no way to at least mention our product, then we won’t write the article. The more the article relates to our product, the better.

Best Articles

If the keyword is still worth pursuing, we add top 3 URLs that rank for the parent keyword. This gives us an easy way to refer to what Google considers best in class and what will be required to outrank them.

Traffic

We use Ahrefs to estimate how much monthly traffic the top 3 URLs are getting. This sets a solid benchmark for how much traffic we could expect to get if we were able to rank our pages in the top 3.

Note: this is much more accurate than keyword search volume as pages tend to rank for several keywords at once.

Linking Domains

Keyword difficulty varies dramatically based on several factors. One of the most important factors is the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing to competing pages. This is why we add the number of linking domains for each of the top 3 positions. This helps us determine if the keywords are great opportunities or if they are too competitive for now.

Status

The status of an article helps us manage multiple keyword and article ideas.

A new keyword gets added to the “To be determined status”. Then, if it shows promise, it gets moved to “Up Next”. While we work on articles, they have the “In progress” label until they get published.

Before going to the “Done” pile, articles spent a few weeks in “Completed - Distribution” because articles need to be promoted, shared, and receive backlinks in order to rank. More on this below.

Notes / Links / Results

This is an area where we add notes as we do our research. For example, if all the top ranking pages are outdated, slow loading, incomplete, have terrible designs, or something that could be improved, we noted it in here.

Using a combination of research techniques and various sorting mechanisms, we are able to determine what content should be produced and in what order. 

2. Dartboard framework - Targeting Interest and Intent

Although the keyword research strategy described by Beth Morgan on Neil Patel’s blog is different than the one we use at PageCloud, both concepts focus on keywords that convert.

As you can see on the infographic above, you want to focus on keywords that are closest to the center of the dartboard.

Another great part of this framework is how it was developed by an agency running paid search campaigns on Google AdWords. There are a few great lessons that can be learned:

Now that we’ve cover keyword research, it’s time to start producing some outstanding content.

Content Creation

Note: This guide is primarily focused on how to drive organic visitors from a blog or website. We’ve placed additional tutorials for video SEO in the helpful links sections.

Before jumping in and writing your keyword-targeted blog post, it’s important to perform additional research to properly structure your content.

Here are the questions you’ll need to answer:

To help demonstrate, we will explain the step-by-step process we used to rank 1st on Google for “how to add custom font to website”.

What format should be used for the article?

A quick Google search for your target keyword will help you quickly determine the type of content that is currently ranking. These could be blog posts, product reviews, forums, videos, and everything in between.

It’s also important to note how the content is being displayed. Is it in a list? A step-by-step guide?

Here’s the current search engine results page (SERP) for “how to add custom font to website”:

As you can see, every single piece of content that ranks is a step-by-step guide. Because the audience’s intent is to learn how to do something, this is the format that was required to rank.

As we look at the SERP, you can see how the majority of the content is more than 5 years old. This made it easier to rank as Google considers freshness of content as a factor in ranking.

Now, let’s take a look at the topics we needed to cover.

What topics should it cover?

By opening up the top 5 results (besides ours), it’s easy to get a sense of what’s being discussed.

Now before adding these to a Google doc and starting to rewrite what already exists, we needed to find a way to make our article better.

Once again, this can be done by asking relevant questions like:

Here’s what our initial outline looked like:

You’ll notice that we simplified some of the topics and added two new points that hadn’t previously been covered by other articles: “How content management systems support custom fonts” and “How website builders support custom fonts”.

This made sense because most people aren’t hand coding their websites. They want to know how to accomplish this task using their website building platform.

Let’s dive further to see how we could improve our article.

What will make it better than what’s currently ranking?

We already knew that this article was going to be more recent and more comprehensive than what was ranking. But could we do more?

Here’s what the competing pages looked like: 

From a user experience (UX) perspective, they all had specific things that could be improved:

These are the reasons why it’s essential to have strong writing skills and to incorporate UX best practices into your website and blog design.

So, to make our article even better, we incorporated these elements.

Note: since Google’s RankBrain update, the algorithm incorporates user-behavior signals to help rank pages. For example, if someone returns to the SERP because your website is too slow or has a boring introduction, it can hurt your rankings.

Related: Design’s Impact on SEO

SEO Copywriting

There are several approaches you can take when writing your article.

Some SEO experts will get super technical by saying things like:

“You need to be aware of your keyword density or you need to add more LSI keywords.” - Typical SEO Expert

We recommend simply using copywriting best practices such as:

Let’s be honest, when it comes to SEO copywriting, there are tons of things you can do to improve.

However, here are three main areas where you want to focus a little extra attention:

Writing an attention-grabbing intro

The introduction is where you build trust with your visitors and where they will ultimately decide if they should keep reading or head back to the SERP to find another answer to their query.

Needless to say, this is extremely important.

Here’s the intro we wrote for our article targeting “how to add custom font to website”:

Take note of how simple and to-the-point that introduction is.

The first sentence talks about the key benefit while the second sentence jumps into the process and explains what the article is about. The third sentence shows the additional topics other articles don’t address.

The table of contents in blue helps visitors get a quick overview of your article and navigate to the sections that are important to them.

Choosing compelling titles

When people land on your page, they will do one of two things:

In both cases, they are trying to figure out if they should invest time in your article.

As mentioned above, you will want your titles to reflect the topics you’re covering while creating interest amongst your readers.

From a technical SEO standpoint, you will want your main title to be an h1 tag and your subtitles to use h2, h3, and h4 tags based upon their relative importance to the core topic.

Here’s a visual representation of how titles appear for your site visitors and search engine crawlers:

To really master your titles, check out Search Engine Journal’s article on heading tag best practices.

Related: Basic SEO in PageCloud, including heading tags.

Click-worthy Title Tags and Meta Descriptions

Title tags and meta descriptions are important elements that help make up your page’s snippet in a SERP.

Here’s how they appear in the head section of a website (code) and in a SERP. 

Note: As you can see above, Google can choose to modify your meta description to show something that it considers more relevant.

The key to writing strong page titles and meta descriptions is to quickly convey the value and relevance of the page while enticing someone to click on your link instead of the ones next to it.

For example, if you were looking to add custom fonts to your website, what link would you click on?

Most people would choose PageCloud’s link.

But why?

Although it doesn’t exactly match to the search query “how to add custom font to website”, it does seem like an easier article to digest than the second one.

To replicate our strategy, here are some high level tips on writing awesome page titles:

Related: How to Craft the Perfect SEO Title Tag

When it comes to your meta description, it’s a little different.

Here are the main things you want to keep in mind:

Bonus: How to optimize your page for SEO

If you’re not a technical person, here’s the good news:

For the past few years, Google has made it easier for high quality content to make its way up the rankings despite not having “perfectly optimized pages” from a technical SEO standpoint.

However, there are a few things that you absolutely need to rank:

Have a fast loading website

Use Google PageSpeed insights, Pingdom, or GTMetrix to ensure your website is fast loading.

Have a mobile-friendly website

Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly test to ensure your page looks good on mobile.

Consider using SEO-friendly URLs

Unfortunately, some website building platforms and content management systems automatically create ugly-looking URLs that are hard to understand for both search engines and your site visitors.

For example:

yoursite.com/slug/8185198.html

vs.

yoursite.com/blog/seo-guide

To write proper URLs, try to keep them short and relevant to your target keywords.

Another tip is to try and avoid using numbers or dates as these can change over time.

For example:

yoursite.com/blog/12-photoshoot-ideas-for-2019

What if you add an idea or update the article in 2020? Is the URL still relevant?

A good alternative would be: yoursite.com/blog/photoshoot-ideas

For more on-page SEO tips, check out Brian Deans “Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page”.

Related: How to submit new pages to Google

Backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors for your website.

A backlink is created when another website links to your website.

Google considers this a “vote of confidence” that helps the algorithm determine the quality and relevance of your content.

As a rule of thumb, the more competitive the keywords you target, the more backlinks you will need in order to rank.

Before we dive into how to get backlinks, let’s first explain a few key concepts.

Backlinks: quality vs quantity

There are several ways to determine the quality or “authority” of a backlink.

Here are a few examples:

Using a 0 - 100 scale, these tools help predict the quality of domains and their pages.

Generally speaking, the higher the number, the more value you would get from an incoming link.

To help illustrate this concept, here are some example sites and their Domain Ratings:

Although backlinks can be a fairly complex topic, applying common sense will help you determine the quality of a backlink.

Can you spot what page provides higher quality links?

If you picked the bolded options, you’re absolutely right.

But why is this important?

Understanding the quality of links will help you target the links you want to go after.

Backlink outreach can be a long process so you don’t want to waste your time trying to acquire low quality links that won’t help your site.

A few notes before moving on to the next section:

How many backlinks to do you need to rank?

Because Google’s algorithm considers more than 200 ranking factors at once, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer.

However, the more you understand SEO, the easier this question becomes.

Essentially, you need to compare the quality the content currently ranking with yours.

Let’s go back to our original example for the keyword: “how to add custom font to website”.

Using a tool, like Ahref’s SERP overview, you can quickly see some important metrics for the top 10 search results:

Backlinks show the total number of links a page has received and Domains shows the total numbers of websites linking to each page.

As you can see, there are several pages that rank in the top 10 without a single backlink.

This immediately told us that if we created high quality content, there would be a strong chance our content would rank without needing any links. This is true despite the fact that some of the websites have a much higher Domain Rating (DR) than PageCloud.

But what if all the pages had a 100 backlinks from 50 domains?

Well, that would make it a much harder keyword to rank for!

Because our content is arguably better than the competition, we might not need as many links as them, but we would still need a few, let’s say 10 to 20. This is not scientific, but probably a reasonably accurate guess.

Don’t forget that it’s not just about quantity but quality!

The key takeaway is that the better you make your content, the less backlinks you will require to rank. This is because Google considers over 200 other ranking signals, including how visitors interact with the SERP and your content.

Note: There are some cases where you will see pages with less than 10 backlinks competing with pages that have thousands of backlinks. Typically these pages provide outstanding or extremely relevant content that will organically gain backlinks overtime and become extremely difficult to outrank.

How to get backlinks?

This question is similar to “how to do sales and marketing”.

In essence, getting backlinks is a combination of both, with a few helpful hacks along the way.

Marketing for backlinks can include traditional tactics such as newsletters, social media posts, paid advertising, interacting on forums, podcasts, and more.

On the other hand, reaching out to people through email or social media is considered more of a sales approach. Although this can be scaled, it’s essentially a one-to-one experience.

When looking to acquire backlinks, it’s important to use the proper tools and frameworks. If not, acquiring backlinks can become a difficult and time consuming task.

Here are some of our favorite backlink strategies (for beginners and pros):

You’ll notice that almost every backlink-building strategy mentioned above revolves around one of the following concepts:

If you really break down backlink-building to the core steps, it looks like this:

Step 1 - Find a backlink opportunity
Step 2 - Find the contact information for the person who manages the website
Step 3 - Reach out / follow up with personalized message that conveys value prop

Here are some additional articles that will help you pick the right tools and process to help you become a backlink-building master:

Finding backlink opportunities:

Find the contact information for the person who manages the website:

Reach out / follow up with personalized message that conveys value prop:

Note: At PageCloud we use Ahrefs, Hunter.io, and BuzzStream to complete these tasks.

Final thoughts

Congratulations on making your way through our SEO guide!

The tactics and strategies described above have helped PageCloud and numerous other successful companies dramatically improve their search performance and reduce their reliance on paid advertising.

Whether you’re going to be doing the SEO yourself or hiring someone else, here are a few key points to keep in mind:

Below you will find some additional SEO articles that relate to more specific topics such as video seo and local seo.

Feeling inspired to start a new SEO-optimized website?

Start your free trial today with PageCloud’s website builder.

Written by

Philip Westfall