Okay, we’re going to tackle something a little different from my usual content this morning. Something I’m super passionate about both in my blogger life and in my actual day job as a marketer for big brands. It’s nerdy. It’s time-consuming. But ohhhh is it important (and honestly I think it’s fun!).
YEP! We’re talking SEO today. This is a deep look at SEO for beginners (to intermediate). I can’t possibly be completely exhaustive in this post (because it would end up as a novel), but I will try to go as in-depth as time and length will allow before your eyes glaze over. My goal here is to talk more about what matters and why, giving you critical foundational SEO principles to consider in setting up and optimizing your site…I won’t be able to cover step-by-step instructions for each element, but I will cover some of that in separate in-depth posts.
Get your biggest cup of coffee and LET’S DO THIS.
(warning: this is going to be a very text-heavy post, but I’ll try to throw a few images in to break it up…)
What is SEO and why does it matter?
SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization, and it basically means all the different things you can do to set up and constantly improve a website to help grow organic (unpaid, or “earned”) traffic. It’s a combination of technical wizardry and creating great content, and is critical for success.
Google’s (and many other sites’/search engines’) bots are constantly out there crawling and analyzing websites to determine what is most relevant to a user. Your goal with SEO is to make sure Google’s bots can understand the purpose and quality of your site.
However, it’s not only about making the Google machine happy—you have to keep the user experience in mind. Google is very smart. Once upon a time we had to have separate pages for “best car loans” and “best auto loans”, but over the years the technology has learned that those are the same thing and can be used interchangeably (and that it’s a better user experience).
It’s also important to think about “how to SEO” much more broadly than just your website. We’re really talking about your blog in this post, but the same general principles below can apply in how you think about other discovery and search platforms such as YouTube (the #2 search engine in the world), Pinterest, various 3rd-party aggregators or e-commerce sites like Etsy, and more.
And it’s good to remember that specific SEO tactics and best practices change constantly and it’s a full-time job to keep up. But what we’re covering below are generally foundational principles that change very rarely, so you’re not tasked with keeping up with every little twitch in the SEO landscape.
What this post covers:
- Two absolute must-haves (mobile-friendly & https)
- Tools that help with SEO
- Absolutely critical elements
- Rich content / length
- Fast loading and other technical pieces
- Focused keyword strategy
- Internal linking
- URL structure, title, meta description
- Site structure / sitemaps
- Nice to have
- H1, H2, etc. & page structure
- Occasional linking out
- Assigning alt image text
- Naming and re-sizing your image files
- Backlinks (external links to your site
- Do not do under any circumstances
- Keyword stuffing
- Hiding keywords/text
- Meta keywords
- Link farms, purchasing links, etc.
You might also like: How I Built My Traffic Using Tailwind
Before we start, two must-haves:
Two things we can get out of the way right at the start—if your website isn’t mobile-friendly/mobile-responsive and secure (i.e. starts with “https”) then start there. Those are so critical to Google’s algorithm and have been considered “table stakes” for years now, so I’m not even going to go into them in-depth.
Pretty much any website provider should give you good tools to convert to a secure site (called an SSL certificate), and either the website host or a plugin (like Really Simple SSL) can make fully redirecting every page to https easy (though make sure you set things up in Search Console correctly). And one of your #1 criteria for choosing a theme should be that it’s fully mobile-responsive.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll break this down by the things that are critical, the things that help a lot but are “nice to have” from a time spent standpoint, and then a few considerations if you’ve got the time and energy to invest. I’ve also covered some techniques at the end that you shouldn’t be doing and can hurt your website’s rankings.
One other note is that I’ll be referencing Google throughout this. There are obviously other search engines, but Google’s the biggest and tends to lead in innovation and change as well, so they’re who we truly care about. These optimizations will work for other search engines though.
Tools that help with search engine optimization
I’m going to do a much deeper dedicated post on various site development and management tools which will go into much more detail on these, so I’ll just hit the high points here. But there are a few tools that will help your SEO efforts a ton. All four have a robust free version, so there’s no mandatory cost.
- Yoast SEO WordPress plugin: The team at Yoast do an absolutely amazing job, and their free tool is top-notch. This WordPress plugin lets you choose a focus keyword for each post/page, and then evaluates how well the post is implementing various SEO principles. It’s important to still take it with a grain of salt and not follow everything to the letter (e.g. if it’s telling you to add a few more mentions of your focus keyword but you feel that would sound unnatural/weird), but it’s incredibly helpful.
- Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools): Google offers this tool for any site admin, and it does a ton of different things. For the purposes of this SEO discussion, Search Console can do things like help identify and fix page load errors, get a sense of what keywords you’re showing up for in organic search (and which ones are getting clicks), submit a crawlable XML sitemap, and many other technical needs.
- Google Analytics: Obviously you should be using Google Analytics for many reasons that I won’t get into here, but it’s helpful for understanding how your organic search traffic is trending over time, which pages get organic traffic, bounce rate, and more.
- Google AdWords: You may not be used to working in AdWords unless you have a paid advertising/media background (which I do). But this is where I do all my keyword research, so as a planning tool it’s invaluable.
Rich content / length
TL,DR: Content should be useful, deep, unique, and the topic clear at the beginning.
No matter what, content is still king. You can try to game the system and do all the other pieces right to try and rank quickly, but if you don’t have quality content, that answers the types of questions searchers have, and readers don’t find it relevant to their queries, then you still won’t win.
So what should you take into consideration? Well, a searcher’s intent, for starters. What would someone be looking for, and how would they word it? More on that when we talk keyword strategy.
There is no magic bullet for content length—Google is looking for quality, facts, and authority. Historically at least 300 words is a good minimum length, though there are obviously exceptions, and 300-600 has been talked about as a “sweet spot”. However, a study in 2016 found that the average length for a Page 1 ranking website page was 1,900 words. So rich, quality content will win out. Think about how you structure long content, though…headings, numbering, breaking it up, visuals, and more can make it much easier to digest.
You also need to tell your audience exactly what you’re talking about and why they should care right at the beginning of your post. You have MAX 15 seconds to capture their interest (15-second rule) before they’ll leave and go elsewhere. On the one hand people will give you a bit more time than the usual 3-5 seconds if they’re actively searching for something, but you have to pay off their efforts quickly of you’ve wasted that click and it will ultimately hurt your SEO over time as well.
It also shouldn’t duplicate (or closely approximate) content that already exists on your site. Uniqueness is really important, and you should also keep this in mind if you plan to write guest posts on other people’s sites—you won’t want it to be too similar or both sites will be penalized.
Fast-loading – get the technical pieces right!
There are many different technical elements to SEO, but one of the ones you need to make sure you’re getting right is page load time. If your website takes a while to load and show everything, not only will Google penalize you (it’s an official ranking factor) but you’ll lose the readers that you just worked hard to get there—53% of users leave a website if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. You could be losing half of your traffic just because your site is slow!
One big thing to keep an eye on related to page load speed (and also hosting space) is image size. You want to make sure you size your images appropriately before uploading them to your website CMS. This includes both actual pixel size and potentially compression as well. You can use a combination of programs, plugins, and a CDN (content delivery network) for this…this post gives a good overview of different considerations. A few tools for testing site speed and identifying issues are GTMetrix, and Google PageSpeed.
Focused keyword strategy
TL;DR – Think like a human being…how would they ask questions or type things in? Then write for that.
This is super important, because if you’re going to go to all the trouble of optimizing everything else but you don’t write about what people are actually LOOKING for, then we’ve got a “if a tree falls in the forest…” situation.
To do this, you first need to put yourself in a reader’s shoes—what are they looking for, and how might they word it? How would your brother, your mom, or your best friend ask the question? Then pair that with what you actually would write about.
There’s no sense in choosing a focus keyword that doesn’t match what you would actually say. However, if you’re writing a post on a long weekend in Vancouver, but if you do keyword research and discover that there are more searches for “2 days in Vancouver” or “what to do in Vancouver”, then you should consider adjusting your post’s title, URL, and language slightly.
Here’s an example sticking with our Vancouver theme. You want to go into Google AdWords, click on “Tools & Planning” in the top right, and then under Planning you’ll see Keyword Research. Select that and then “Discover new keywords”. You can input lots of different options, and then Google will also recommend additional options.
There are two ways to go about this. Many people do this keyword research first and then write their posts around them. I actually (and counter-intuitively) often do this as one of my last steps before posting. I write my post like I want based on my travel experience, and then go back and make tweaks for the keyword I selected—for me, this helps keep the post authentic and in my own voice, rather than just writing toward a keyword.
I’ll show you where/how we’re using the keywords a little further down.
This might be the most important thing that most people often forget, or they just get a “Related Posts” plugin and call it a day. But building actual hard links between individual pages on your site is so important! It tells Google which pages are related to each other, spreads link equity/power throughout the site, and also helps entice users to spend more time once they’ve landed there. And a Related Posts plugin does not do that.
There are probably tons of different ways to do internal linking, so figure out what fits best within your content. I do it in three different ways: in-text anchor links, “you might also like” options scattered throughout the post, and a selection of related articles at the bottom of each post. Here are examples of each:
URL structure, title, meta description
TL;DR: There are a few key behind-the-scenes elements you need to optimize on every post/page.
These are some of the basics in on-page SEO signals, and one of the reasons even the free version of Yoast is amazing—the plugin allows you to easily edit all of these. Google is constantly crawling and indexing the web to understand what pages will best meet a searcher’s need. So by telling them in your URL and page title what the post is about and including the right keyword, you make their job easier and increase your chances of showing up.
What’s great in Yoast is that you can designate a page title for search that’s different from what actually shows up on your main website. So if you like to name your articles in artsy ways or just add more personality, you can still provide Google with an SEO keyword-optimized title that is also harder-hitting…a.k.a. makes someone want to click!
Here’s an example of a few posts on my site where I’ve done this:
The meta description doesn’t technically directly impact Google’s ranking algorithm, but it DOES indirectly—the meta description is what a user sees as the “blurb” in the search results. Google will bold any keywords that relate to the user’s search, and having a strong meta description can increase the chance that the user will click on your article in the search results (which then does impact the algorithm and help your SEO/ranking).
Using your keyword research:
Here’s one of the big places your keyword research comes in. First, you obviously need to write your posts to include the appropriate keywords or very similar keywords (Google is quite smart). Then if you’re using the Yoast SEO plugin, you can designate your SEO title, URL (slug), and meta description.
Then it will tell you how well your post does at incorporating SEO best practices. You can also set synonyms for your primary keyword, and even indicate a secondary keyword. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to get all the dots to green. It’s okay to have a few oranges or even red dots—writing like a human being and making sure the post is a good user experience trumps Yoast’s recommendations. Also, remember that Google’s bots (for SEO ranking) don’t see/read punctuation and will often also ignore things like “a”, “the”, “in”, etc.
Site structure and sitemaps
This is one of the most important things that many bloggers get wrong at first, and then they have to spend tons of time later completely overhauling and then redirecting their entire site. So if you can think about it early on you’ll set yourself up for success. Here is a good article outlining some additional reasons it’s important and also basic considerations for your own site.
What I ultimately decided on was to have continent be the main category (sub-directory) for most posts, along with a few other non-geographic options that fall under “travel tips”. I toyed with the idea of going continent > country, but didn’t want my final “slug” (the last part of the URL) to be too many levels down. Here are a few examples of my site’s URLs to get a sense of structure naming:
What I would recommend staying away from are dates and a “post ID”. You want specificity, and for your site structure to easily tell the Google bots (as well as your readers) where they are and how they got there—and how it’s connected to everything else. Lastly, make sure your site has an HTML sitemap on the site, and also submit an XML sitemap in your handy Google Search Console as well (learn how here).
Nice to have / if you’ve got time
A lot of these affect SEO less intensely or less directly, but they’re definitely still important. If you’re super strapped for time then these are the ones that you could backburner…however, they’re not very time-intensive so I’d still recommend doing all of these from the outset.
H1, H2, etc. & page structure
Now this is one where I knowingly fall short, due to my current site theme. My H1 is automatically my post title, but then I often don’t use H2s much because they’re GINORMOUS on my site theme and look absurd. I still need to find a new theme, and then I’ll go back and re-structure my posts at some point.
Header tags are a key indicator for Google to know what your biggest topic is, and then break down a page into sub-topics from there. This is not only an SEO best practice, but makes it easier for a reader to consume the page and navigate. The biggest thing is that you want to adhere to a basic hierarchy…H1 is your page title usually (and there should only ever be one H1), then H2s would be your main sections, and then you might break out H3 or H4 from there, etc. It’s simple and WordPress makes it crazy easy.
Here’s a good example of one of my posts that uses the header structure well.
Occasional linking out (external linking)
The newer versions of the Yoast plug-in check for this, but it’s not a critical ranking factor. This doesn’t directly impact your own SEO, but it’s a general SEO positive (and does impact other sites’ SEO). This is, first and foremost, a good user experience—in my mind, linking out to other websites shows that you’re trying to provide good information that gives a user what they need.
From a travel blog perspective, I often link out to TripAdvisor reviews for an experience, to official websites for up-to-date times and prices, to many different types of my own affiliate links (e.g. Amazon items, Booking.com hotels), and to other blog posts that provide more or different perspectives. This broadens the overall scope of the post and helps a user along in their research or inspiration. It’s easy to do, but is by no means a must on a website—if you don’t have anything applicable, then don’t do it.
Assigning alt image text
If you use the Yoast SEO plug-in, it will check for this but it’s never in the “Important” section. However, providing some alt image text is good to do anyway since it helps visually impaired users who are using a device or software that reads the website to them. It’s also what will be displayed to a user if your images can’t load for some reason.
From an SEO standpoint, having alt text that includes your focus keyword and similar iterations just helps reiterate to Google what your post is about. It gives the search engine better context and a semantic description for an image, helping them to index it properly.
Naming your image files (& re-sizing)
While we’re on the topic of images, let’s talk about the files themselves. Something I didn’t do well early on and have since started doing right is naming my images appropriately. This is easy enough with a bulk file renamer, and all I do is add some words to the beginning of each image name to tell me what the post is about.
This has the added benefit of making it easier to search for individual images in WordPress “Add Media” later on. You can see an example of my renamed image below, along with how I incorporated Alt Text.
You can also see the image size. I’ve just recently started re-sizing all my images prior to uploading, because my image files were way too big—this impacts the space it takes up on your hosting (I’m maxed out) and also page load times. It’s a bit of a pain, but is actually really important so I recommend you start doing that from the beginning.
Backlinking (building quality external links to your site)
This is the one exception to my “not super time-intensive” note above. And out of all of these tactics, this is the one that you don’t have to jump on immediately. That’s not to say that great backlinking isn’t super important. It is—backlinks matter immensely.
But doing it RIGHT takes a lot of time and effort, and still won’t matter a ton if your own content and site optimization aren’t good enough. And if your content is really good, you’ll naturally build quality backlinks because other people will link to you from their websites as an authority on various topics. This is very much a “if you build it they will come” scenario.
But once you’ve got your basic SEO foundations in place and are regularly producing quality content, you can look for good backlinking opportunities. These would include guest posting on other people’s blogs (just make sure it’s unique content) with links back to related posts, collabs (where several bloggers all submit a few paragraphs about a topic), and similar opportunities. It’s good to get involved with blogger communities, as this is where you’ll usually find the chance to do this.
My biggest advice? Do what you say you’ll do (e.g. submit by a certain time), be honest, be patient, and be generous. It will be apparent to everyone if you’re only out for yourself in these collaborations, or if you’re totally half-assing your submissions.
Do not do!
These types of tactics are often called “black hat” SEO, and you shouldn’t do them under any circumstances. Basically, anything where you’re gaming the system is a good way to get your website eventually blacklisted and pushed way down the search results by Google. Remember—SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t take shortcuts.
This involves “stuffing” as many keywords onto your page as possible. Sometimes they’re irrelevant, but many times it’s trying to get your focus keyword on the page as many times as possible—resulting in a terrible user experience.
That’s one of the reasons even Yoast says you should take their recommended number of keyword uses with a grain of salt and determine what is natural on the page. If your keyword is something specific like “Delta One review”, then cramming this into paragraph after paragraph will be super weird for a reader…like a robot wrote it. Ultimately that will hurt your SEO.
Hiding keywords on the page
That brings us to something similar, which is hiding all those keywords you’re stuffing. I’ve seen sites do this by adding them into the bottom of the page in white text, or hiding them in the code somehow. Just DON’T. Seriously.
Meta keywords (that’s “so 2010”)
This one isn’t malicious or bad (to my knowledge), it’s just completely useless and a waste of time. Way back in the day you’d designate meta keywords along with your meta description to help search engines know what a page was about. But search engines got way smarter over time and Google completely devalued this years ago. Don’t waste your time…at best it makes you look super out-of-touch.
Link farms, purchasing links, etc.
JUST SAY NO! If someone offers to sell you links back to your site, or anything else that isn’t a truly quality and relevant link to your site from a trustworthy website, then run far and fast. This is bad news bears.
Here’s a whole list of other types of bad tactics that Google themselves has provided, and you should make sure to avoid. It’s a very bad long-term SEO strategy to be shady AF.
A few last thoughts
Whew!!! We made it. If you got this far, then kudos! I know this was a really long post, but as you can see, SEO is no easy task to undertake. It takes time and patience and quite a bit of technical know-how (or at least pretending you know how), but the results are incredibly worthwhile.
I’ve said this several times throughout, but it’s really important to remember that SEO is a long-term game. Even if you’re doing everything right, it still takes quite a bit of time to see results (especially if you’re starting with a new website). I barely saw any organic traffic at all in my first year of blogging. But I laid the foundation from the very beginning.
Now organic search traffic accounts for ~25% of my overall site traffic, bringing in 3,000-4,000 visitors per month. Similarly, my organic Pinterest traffic took about a year to build, and now accounts for 4,000-5,000 visitors per month (excluding my Tailwind Pinterest activity). This is “free” traffic, but it took time and knowledge to build. So start now!
Pin for later!