7 basic SEO fundamentals

There’s an SEO question I get a lot. From all sorts of people too:

  • Small business owners – who have a million and one things to do and know they should ‘do some SEO’ but don’t know where to start or get intimidated by how much there is to do – so would rather not start or fear getting it wrong.
  • Digital marketing specialists – who also have a zillion things to do; their email marketing is in a mess; someone’s son/daughter is the ‘social media manager’; and that ’10x content’ won’t write itself…
  • Start-ups and entrepreneurs – who figure “I need to have a business and a website first before I even think about SEO.”

Whoever they are, that question is:

Where do I start with SEO?

So, with a little (OK, a lot) of help from friends at Breadcrumb Media I put the following video together.

Just over two minutes of seven things to consider before you start on your SEO journey, answering that big question:

Where do I start with SEO?

Read a transcript of the video

Let’s break this down:

  1. Can you be found?
  2. Can you tell if this works?
  3. Who wants to find you?
  4. Are you worth finding?
  5. Get your house in order
  6. Do other sites think you’re worth finding?
  7. Now wait…

The video is a bit of a whistle-stop tour, so let’s dig into these a bit more.

Can you be found?

This is always a good starting point. I’ve seen lots (too many) sites mess up their search engine optimisation efforts because they literally cannot be found.

The video mentions a “rogue noindex tag” – but what does that mean?

A black and white photograph of a young child hiding behind their hands
Noindex is a website saying “You can’t see me!” | Photo by Petras Gagilas via Flickr

A “noindex” is a website’s way of saying to a search engine “I know you see me but don’t index (aka list in your search results) anything you find.”

If you’re wondering why anyone would ever put that on their own website there are lots of legitimate reasons you might not want a page or even an entire site indexed – not all related to ‘the dark web’ and nefarious intents.

Most often you’ll see this in development sites. Your team of coders will be building you a new site or section of your site. They don’t want the search engines to index these pages yet, as they’re not ready (perhaps you’re building up to a big product launch). A “noindex” on these pages would be fine.

However, when you push the big “publish” button and launch your new product you do want search engines indexing your lovely new content.

You have to make sure that the developers took out those noindex tags that they had in your ‘staging’ or development site before making things live.

How to check

An obvious starting place is to search for yourself. Can you find yourself in the Google/Bing/Yandex search results?

If not, you may have a problem.

Next step is to check how many pages you think you have and how many Google thinks you have:

  1. Run a search for site:yourdomain.com – that’s a Google search for pages on that website
  2. Right at the top of the page Google will tell you how many results there are – for site:optimisey.com (at time of writing) there are 42 results
  3. Check it against your site and check it in Google Search Console (quick guide on how to set up Google Search Console)

In Google Index > Index status it will show you “Total indexed” you want this number to be close to the number of results you found. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly the same but if there’s a big difference that should ring alarm bells. Contact your nearest SEO.

There are other ways to get this wrong too.

Take a look at your robots.txt file

Don’t know where to find it? It will almost always be at yourdomain.com/robots.txt. Look, here’s the robots txt for optimisey.com at https://optimisey.com/robots.txt

You will probably find something that looks a bit like this (minus the cute robot from Sebastian Lund on Flickr).

A graphic showing examples of a robots.txt and what each part does

Imagine your website has like a robot doorman (or woman!) who decides who can and who can’t come in. “Trainers mate? Nah, you can’t come in.” that sort of thing.

Your robots.txt file is basically their rulebook.

Let’s look at what each part of this means:

User agent

This is telling the robot who to look out for.

A star or asterisk in coding is a wildcard meaning everything – so in the example above this is saying look out for: everyone.

You might have in yours something like “Googlebot” – no prizes for guessing which major search engine that bot works for.

There are lots (and lots) of others: Bingbot, DuckDuckBot etc. Here’s a handy list of some of the major web crawlers if you’re interested.

So from that first line the robot guard knows who to look for – but what to do when they spot that crawler? That’s the next part.

Allow/Disallow

This difference is crucial.

There is a big difference between allow and disallow and it’s pretty much what you’d expect.

Allow means “Let them see this.” Disallow means the opposite: “Don’t let them see this.”

Those three letters mistakenly added to your robots.txt can be the difference between getting traffic from search engines or not – so be careful.

In that example above though I just have a slash “Disallow: /” – what does that mean?

It tells the robot don’t let them see anything. Any. Thing.

Whatever pages you have on your site they will always be: yourdomain.com/something

That example command says: “As soon as you see a page with a forward slash in it, stop right there… you can’t look.”

Given that every page on your site – including the homepage – has a forward slash in it, my example says don’t look at any of it.

Yes, even the homepage. Your browser might show you otherwise – ignore it.

If you go to the homepage of the Optimisey website it looks like it’s at https://optimisey.com right? No slash on the end, right?

Wrong. The content for that page ‘lives’ at https://optimisey.com/ – a subtle difference but a key one if you’re telling your robot door staff to turn everyone away from any page with a slash in the URL.

Not ideal if you want any traffic from search engines.

Combinations

Using the knowledge above you can work out exactly what your robots.txt file is telling your website door staff to do.

Chances are it says:

User agent: *
Allow: /

Effectively: “Whoever you are, come on in!”

But you can also tailor specific sets of instructions for each crawler – e.g. you want GoogleBot not to see pages x, y and z; and you want BingBot not to see pages a, b and c.

All possible using your robots.txt file. But also possible to get very seriously wrong. So – starting out – double-check your website’s door staff are being friendly and only stopping people seeing things you really don’t want them to see.

Most WordPress sites have

Disallow: /wp-admin

to stop crawlers from visiting your admin pages. Sensible idea.

Can you tell if this works?

This is another important early step that often gets overlooked.

The adage of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” applies here.

Hopefully you’ve got some form of measurement on your site already so you know how it’s performing. Google Analytics is extremely popular – you probably have that.

Is it set-up correctly though?

If you’re going to be working on your website a lot are you screening yourself from your website stats? How about your colleagues and the developers?

And what about those website crawlers? If you get this right and your robots.txt is in good shape, you’ll have crawlers visiting your site more often. Crawlers don’t buy anything. You probably don’t want to count them in your stats either.

If all this is new to you, fear not I wrote a handy guide to Google Analytics views and filters to help walk you through this.

Once you know you’re counting the right stats you’ll also want some ‘conversions’ in place too e.g. how many people visit your checkout page, or sign-up for your newsletter etc.

Getting more traffic via search is great but is it the right traffic?

You should set-up Goals to measure those key interactions. Handily, I wrote a how-to-guide for that too: Google Analytics goals and content groups.

Get Google Search Console set-up too. Using that you can see how many ‘search impressions’ (aka times your site appears in the results); clicks; and your average position in the results too.

You want to benchmark all those things before you start so that, in x weeks/months time you can see what difference you have made to your traffic and your bottom line.

Guide to setting up Google Search Console

Who wants to find you?

Now you know you can be found and you can measure the results if people do find you – who does want to find you?

And no “I cater for everyone!” is not an acceptable answer here.

You’ve probably heard ideas around this area with things like personas, segmentation or CX (customer experience). Don’t write them off as “…airy-fairy stuff – I know who my customers are.”

When I worked at the National Trust they did this really well.

Yes, they wanted ‘everyone’ to come to their properties or shops and cafes; or visit their website or engage with their campaigns or promotions.

But they had very clear ideas about who their different audience groups were (yes, you’re allowed more than one!); what they wanted; when they wanted it; and how they wanted to get it.

It helped a great deal with everything from event planning to marketing.

'Everyone' is not a persona or a segment. It's a cop out.

Think about your customers or your ideal customer.

Who are they? Why do they need you? What have you got that is going to make their life easier/better/more enjoyable?

When they have that “I wish I had…” moment that your product is the answer to, where are they? Are they in the office (so on a desktop computer)? Or on the move (so likely on a mobile)?

You picture them going to Google and searching for “best widget maker near me” and your business comes up! They click the resulting link to your website! They love it! They buy from you! Yay!

OK… go back. What was it they typed into the search engine? What are they looking for? If they don’t know you exist it’s unlikely they’re going to search for “your company name” – what problem are they trying to solve? What need are they addressing?

All that thinking about who they are will help too. If they’re a teenager in Brazil the device, search terms, time of day everything will be very different from if your ideal customer is a 60-something in leafy Surrey.

Which of your customers makes you think: 'I wish I had more of them.' That's your customer persona.

Not sure who your ideal customer is? Think about your existing customers. Who are they? What do they have in common?

Are you worth finding?

A photo of a graffiti'd Evening Standard headline poster saying "WMDs FOUND"
Are you worth finding? | Photo by bixentro via Flickr

Now you know who you want to find you, do they want to find you?

When they’re looking for, say, “How to list my business on Bing” does your guide that comes up in the results answer their question? Does it walk them through it in easy steps? Does have images and examples to make it visually interesting and engaging? Does it do it in the best damned way possible… so well in fact it just blows anything similar out of the water?

If the answer is yes, you’re worth finding.

If it’s not, you need to work on your content.

Content may be king but every King needs a good castle. Make sure your King has a fast, responsive site to sit in; make sure the UX (user experience) is good e.g. can people find what they’re after easily? Are the menus clear and laid out well?

Now you’re really worth finding.

Get your house in order

Now you’re all teed up, ready to launch your ship of SEO loveliness into the sea of the internet.

You might wanna check it for holes first…

A photo of an old blue rowing boat, called Astoria, filled with water
Check your boat for holes before you get in | Photo by joiseyshowaa via Flickr

Good SEO is about lots of things – both on your site and off it – that you can do to help your site rank higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

One of the first things you should do, before you start pouring oodles of lovely traffic into your site, is check it’s not going to leak them all out again.

Is your internal linking clear? Those pages on your website that you think are the most important – does your site send “This is important” signals to the search engines?

Where, how and how often you link to your own pages sends signals to search engines. Think of it like this:

If you don't think your content is link-worthy, why would anyone else?

Things like your sitemap will play a big role here. Get that sorted.

Assuming your fantastic, new piece of content hits the first page of Google’s results for a high-volume search term – where do you want people to go after they read it?

Have you laid out a clear path for people to buy/sign-up/register/share etc.?

Fixing those holes now will save you a lot of frustration later when you do finally get some great SERP positions.

Do other sites think you’re worth finding?

This is about off site stuff.

As the video says, links are a bit like votes in that another website linking to yours is seen as a vote to say “Yup, this site is a good one.”

There’s more to it, obviously – like what is a ‘good one’ for? You want links from relevant, authoritative websites in your niche or geography. Ideally both.

If you sell widgets in Cambridge and the famous bobs-cambridge-widget-reviews.com (awful URL) links to your latest product saying “this is the best widget in Cambridge” – that’s a pretty good link. You want lots like that.

And you can think broadly here. If you’re in widget sales it’s not just other widget sites you want links from. Links from sites that focus on your geographic region are good too.

You can go another way too – who uses your widgets? If it’s teenagers a link from teengaerstuff.com might be good too – if they’re authentic popular and authoritative in that market.

Have a plan. Who could/would/should link to you? Get in touch with them. Ask them to link to you.

And don’t ‘link swap’ the “I’ll link to you if you link to me.” – that’s no good. Search engines see right through that. It’s the SEO equivalent of vote-rigging, right?

If their site is useful to your customers, sure, link to them – in context, where it’d be useful. If it’s not, don’t.

Now wait…

The last great skill required of all SEO’ers.

Patience.

Good SEO takes time.

Even if you smash this it is going to take weeks, probably months for there to be any discernible difference in your rankings or traffic.

With all your amazing measurements in place and benchmarks, keep an eye on things. Don’t falter if rankings or traffic dip – hold a steady course of incremental improvements.

If traffic continues to drop, take a deeper look into why/when/how but keep your eye on that longer term prize: more, better qualified traffic. Perhaps that ‘dip’ is you just culling people that were never going to become customers anyway?

If you find something is working, don’t rest on your laurels, how can you apply that to more of your pages? How can you further optimise things?

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Below is a transcript of the video for those that are interested.

7 basic seo fundamentals – transcript

SEO Tips

1. Can you be found?

Get the basics right. A rogue “noindex” tag can mean none of your pages appear in search results.

2. Can you tell if this works?

Get all your measurement in place first.

Google Analytics (or whichever data platform you use) and Google Search Console will be invaluable in checking if your efforts are paying off.

3. Who wants to find you?

Do you know your target audience?

What are they looking for? How, where and when do they look for it?

When you are the answer (or want to be) what would your customer type into a search engine?

Or say, to Siri, Alexa, Cortana or Google Home?

4. Are you worth finding?

Is your website useful, engaging and informative?

Is it easy to find what you need?

Is the UX (user experience) good?

Is your site fast to download? Even on mobiles? Especially on mobiles!

Then there’s the small matter of the content.

Is it useful to your customers or just a sales pitch?

Is it keyword rich (but not keyword stuffed)?

5. Get your house in order

Check your internal linking – does your site send “this is important” signals to search engines about your key content?

Does it send the right signals?

Check your meta data, page URLs, page titles, descriptions, headings and more.

6. Do other sites think you’re worth finding?

Search engines see links like ‘votes’.

Do other websites ‘vote’ for you and your content?

Get links from relevant, high-authority websites in your niche.

Get all the free high-authority links you can too e.g. Bing, Yelp

Make sure your NAP (name, address, phone number) is consistent across all sites. Not similar – but the same.

7. Now wait…

Good SEO takes time.

Focus on steps 3, 4, 5 and 6… then go back to step 2 and measure.

Make incremental improvements and watch your site fly up the search engine rankings!

For more SEO advice visit optimisey.com.

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