An Introduction to Search Engine Optimization

Google Search Engine Optimization Result

SEO Basics for Beginners

SEO or Search Engine Optimization is the process of improving how pages of a website rank in the natural or organic results of search engines.

Orbit Media Studios communicated in their article ranking high on search engines by emphasizing that "Google doesn’t rank websites, it ranks web pages." As a result, incorporating SEO best practices for each page on your website can increase search volume and the quality of traffic.

It's been documented that a website appearing within the first few listings on page one of a search engine's results will get more visitors or clicks when compared to a website that's not ranked as high.

Striving for that number one spot on Google's results can make a world of difference with the traffic volume that your website can receive.

Search Engine Journal presents findings from a couple of studies to support the importance of that top spot on the SERPs (search engine results page). In one study, more than half of organic search clicks go to the first link and another study indicated that the top Google result gets 36.4% of the clicks.

Search Engine Crawlers

In the past couple of decades, search engines have evolved a great deal. Currently, the top search engines based on usage are Google, Bing and Yahoo! along with Ask and AOL, which have a much smaller sliver of the search engine market share pie.

The following chart reveals the search engine marketing share of all home and work locations in the United States by percentages as of March 2016 (data is from comScore).

Search engines use crawlers, called robots (bots) or spiders, based on algorithms to find pages on the web. Crawler-based search engines operate like automated software agents that find websites.

And page by page, the search robots scan the site's HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Bots scan the HTML for meta tags included in the HEAD portion of your page and the content from the BODY portion of the same webpage.

Web browsers like Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari allow your site visitors to see everything that is in the BODY portion of your HTML. A webpage's information that is in the BODY can provide website users with content they can consume through text, images and other types of media.

Some videos, audio and images found on websites can be searchable, however search engines prefer text.

As the bots are scanning your webpage's content, and specifically text, these automated crawlers simultaneously try to follow any links on the page.

Neil Patel over at believes that a critical factor to improve search engine optimization is to include a "... sheer variety of words" on your page.

Most of the links that search bots will find on your webpage will be to other pages of your website. These are known as internal links.

The other links that a bot may find are external. These are links that point to another website's page.

The results of a crawl then get returned to the search engine and are indexed.

The ultimate goal of search engines is to crawl and index webpages and to then rank your content.

Google's Search Algorithm

There are many factors that influence how search engines' run their algorithms. Take Google for example, nobody really knows the mathematical formula it uses to return search results for a user that has performed a search query.

In fact, Google goes to great lengths to keep this a secret. A New York Times interview revealed that Google, "has been cautious about... speak(ing) with the news media about the magical, mathematical brew inside the millions of black boxes that power its search engine."

The NY Times interview spotlights Amit Singhal, a master engineer at Google, who discusses Google's “ranking algorithm”, the behind the scene formulas determining the webpages resulting from a user’s question. The NYT interview continues to reveal;

Mr. Singhal has developed a far more elaborate system for ranking pages, which involves more than 200 types of information, or what Google calls “signals.” PageRank is but one signal. Some signals are on Web pages — like words, links, images and so on. Some are drawn from the history of how pages have changed over time. Some signals are data patterns uncovered in the trillions of searches that Google has handled over the years. “The data we have is pushing the state of the art,” Mr. Singhal says. “We see all the links going to a page, how the content is changing on the page over time.”

And speaking of Google's secret sauce, Nicholas Carr wrote an article for the Atlantic (July/August 2008 issue) titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He conducted research on how the Internet is changing the way we read and process information.

He also addressed how intense testing is at Google and illustrated how difficult it has made it for the search industry.

Carr learned that Google, "...carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it."

In 2011, Google started making big algorithm changes with Panda. Major modifications to the Google search engine continued into 2012 with the Google Penguin update.

Dr. Andy Williams who authored the book SEO 2013 & Beyond summarized it best by saying that Penguin completely changed the way we thought about SEO. And even more drastic search engine tweaks came along in 2013 with Hummingbird.

Moz has a time line documenting Google's Algorithm Change History all the way back to the year 2000.

According to Google on How Search Works and Algorithms, if "you want the answer, not trillions of webpages. Algorithms are computer programs that look for clues to give you back exactly what you want."

Read SEO Like I'm 5: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Search Engine Optimization on Amazon Kindle

Offpage SEO - Getting Links from other Sites

There are two types of Search Engine Optimization.

The first type is referred to as "offpage SEO". These are things done externally to your your website, such as getting links from other websites that point back to your site.

This is known in the Internet marketing community as link building. Links back to your website are similar to getting votes. In recent years, updates to Google's search engine algorithm via Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird, tends to favor good content on the web.

And since content is king, the same great content that you provide users who find you through search will also attract web publishers or even bloggers to reference by creating a link to your webpage from their website.

Social Media Today mentions that with link building, "search engines are deeply interested in the number and quality of links over the Internet that point back to your webpage."

Onpage SEO - Editing your HTML Code

The other type of Search Engine Optimization is called "onpage SEO". This approach to optimizing your site is all about control.

Wikipedia elaborates about onpage SEO by stating that "optimizing a website primarily involves editing its content and HTML coding to both increase its relevance to specific keywords and to remove barriers to the indexing activities of search engines."

Since you may do the content management or editing of your site with an HTML editor like Dreamweaver or through a Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla or DotNetNuke, then you do the onpage SEO.

You can also apply these tactics on web editors, blogging platforms and wikis.

For any website looking to get optimized for the search engines, both onpage and offpage SEO must be considered to have the full benefits of ranking well.

The next few paragraphs cover some basics and best practices you can apply to your website or blog right now through onpage SEO.

This can take you 15 to 20 minutes per webpage. You will need to access each webpage's HTML, properties or settings through your content management system, blog, wiki or web editor.

Onpage SEO will be the focus for the rest of this article.

Meta Title Tag

The title tag is commonly what appears on the search engine results pages. The title tag is found in the HEAD portion of your webpage's HTML.

For example, here's a screenshot of the title tag used for the SEO Introduction you are reading. It looks like this:

Meta title tag in HTML head

The words within the tags is the title that is seen at the very top of your web browser window or tab on a webpage.

You should use appropriate keywords in the title of your webpage and when your page appears in the search engine results.

As a result, Internet users skimming the SERPs may gravitate towards your site's listing by clicking on it.

Keep title tags brief because Google shows about 55 characters on search engine results. So you don't want your title getting cutting off and appearing incomplete in the results.

And very important, each page of your site should have a unique title tag.

Meta Description Tag

Just as important that each webpage's title tag of your site is unique, it's strongly recommended that a unique description for the meta description tag be used as well.

The description tag is also found in the HEAD portion of your webpage's HTML below the title tag. A blog, content management system or web editor will probably have a field you can enter through a settings page.

The character count of the page's description should be around 150 and no more than 160 characters.

Remember, a different description should be placed for each of your pages. That can't be emphasized enough.

Many times, this description tag shows up on the search engine results page beneath the title tag.

And from a website marketing perspective, this can be an effective method to market your idea, service or product to appear on the search engine's results page.

Not to mention, if you have a well written description, it works like a free ad on Google, Yahoo! or Bing that may attract a potential user, client or customer to click on your SERP listing.

Here's another screenshot. This time it's of the meta description tag used for this Search Engine Optimization Introduction article you are reading:

Meta description tag in HTML head

Meta Keywords Tag

The meta keyword tag was heavily used by Google when it started as a search engine back in September 4, 1998 and for some years to follow.

Google no longer ranks the keywords tag in its search engine algorithm. Here is Matt Cutts distinguished Google engineer explaining how they no longer rank the meta tag.

However, other search engines still may utilize the keywords tag and give it some preference on their algorithm.

If you utilize this tag, then try to use no more than 8 words per page for this tag. If you use the keywords tag in the header of your page, those words should appear in the BODY text of the webpage.

If not, other search engines may believe your page is irrelevant and impose a penalty for irrelevant content.

Google considers illicit practices from site owners by removing them entirely from their index.

Google's Webmaster Guidelines makes it very clear, "if a site has been penalized, it may no longer show up in results on or on any of Google's partner sites."

Some SEO experts dismiss the use of meta keywords all together by not using this tag at all.

ALT Image Tag

Another ranking factor that Google considers is the ALT image tag. Optimizing your webpage images is another critical factor for SEO. Search engines can't really see images.

Therefore, utilizing the ALT attribute can be an opportunity for better search engine rankings.

Use the ALT attribute to provide descriptive text for each image on a webpage.

Best Practices for Keyword Phrases

Ultimately, your goal is for your site's webpages to be found by your potential clients, customers or users on all search engines. Regardless of your audience, you want each page to have a focus, like a topic.

For example, this webpage topic you have been reading is a basic guide to search engine optimization. A reference to get you started on SEO.

You will note that the topic "SEO" and "Search Engine Optimization", appear many times on this webpage, but naturally throughout this article in different variations.

Andy Crestodina blogged in 3 Key Steps to SEO Fitness that your webpage's keyword phrases should be a healthy mix of, "plural forms, synonyms, acronyms and abbreviations."

For example, "Search Engine Optimization" or SEO key terms and similar variants are found in the following parts of this article:

  1. The URL of this webpage
  2. The main article title above the article's image, which has an H1 tag
  3. Title meta tag within the HEAD section of this webpage's HTML
  4. Description meta tag within the HEAD section of this webpage's HTML
  5. Meta name keywords tag within the HEAD section of this webpage's HTML
  6. Within the context of this entire article

Be careful not to go overboard with your targeted keywords. Keyword stuffing is frowned upon from the SEO industry and search engine companies. Google, Bing or Yahoo! may consider your site as webspam and impose a penalty on it.

Content guidelines from the Google support help section to webmasters inform that, "keyword stuffing refers to the practice of loading a webpage with an attempt to manipulate a site's ranking in Google search results."

Google continues that keywords should not appear unnaturally on a webpage such as, "in a list or group, or out of context (not as natural prose)." And take heed, Wordstream warns us about over-optimizing a webpage with the dangers of SEO keyword stuffing.

Google concludes that, "filling pages with keywords...results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site's ranking."

Your webpage topic should focus on providing users with unique and compelling content that utilizes keyword phrases within context.

As a result of your great content, users will want to share and promote it on social media.

In addition, other webmasters or bloggers may be inclined to link to your information-rich page from their webpage or blog, which would have a positive impact on your site's SEO through link building.

Semantic Markup

You have mapped your content, topic along with various relevant keywords. But that's not enough, your content should employ proper use of HTML through semantic markup.

This is key if you want your webpage to be found by search engines. HTML was designed to convey meaning and specify structure, those paragraph formats include:

  • Headline 1 (H1)
  • Headline 2 (H2)
  • Headline 3 (H3)
  • Headline 4 (H4)
  • Headline 5 (H5)
  • Paragraph
  • Lists

The states that semantic HTML applied to your website's content is essential for search engine visibility. Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton explain how semantic markup heavily impacts your site's search appearance by listing the following reasons:

  • Information architecture
  • Efficient web coding
  • Universal usability
  • Maximum display flexibility