Demystifying SEO: A Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization

Demystifying SEO A Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization

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When trying to improve your presence and reach online, you’ll soon find yourself asking, “What is SEO, and why do I need it?” This beginner’s guide will make clear what SEO, or search engine optimization, means, what it entails, and how to do it. It’ll also cover best practices to follow and the most costly and common mistakes to avoid.

We’re also turning our attention to the future of search engine optimization. We’ll explore how AI, user experience, and voice, visual, and video searches are changing the landscape. Keep reading to build a strong foundation of SEO knowledge and have all the related terms and jargon demystified.

What is SEO? The Definition and Importance of SEO

Let’s tackle the crucial question: what is SEO? It stands for search engine optimization. It relates to making your website easier to find by focusing on what users are searching for, what is relevant, and how a search engine ranks your pages. 

According to a Statista survey, 50% of marketing professionals say SEO had a large positive impact on performance, while 32% noticed a slight positive impact. The internet is a vast and noisy place, making it difficult for people to find the solution that meets their needs. SEO plays a vital role in positioning your website in front of people who need your help. 

Understanding the Ins and Outs of Search Engine Optimization: Overview of What You Can Expect To Learn

Knowing why your business needs SEO is just the beginning. We’ll outline how search engines work and rank sites so you understand why optimization works. Crucially, we set out the types of SEO, best practices, and things that can go wrong. Finally, we take a look at the future of optimization so you can stay ahead of the curve.

We’ll answer the following questions:

  • What is SEO?
  • What are the key components of search engine optimization?
  • How to do SEO yourself?
  • What is an SEO specialist, and why do you need one?
  • Where will search engine optimization head next?

How Search Engines Work

When people are looking for your site, they’ll start at their default home page or address bar, which is a place for them to search for what they want. We usually enter a few terms and then scan the top search engine results to pick the most relevant option. To better understand SEO, we’ve explained how search engines know what results to display and which ones should appear first.

What is SEO? SEO for beginners Google search.
How Search Engines work when typing in your question.

Explanation of Search Engine Algorithms

We can’t answer the question “What is SEO?” without exploring the role of search engines. A search engine offers a field for people to add terms related to what they want, such as ‘help creating SEO content.’ Once you enter the terms, the search engine goes through its index, looking for matches to those words while taking into account several other factors.

A search engine’s algorithm actually contains multiple algorithms that consider the following factors when listing results:

  • Relevance – This includes matching keywords in the content with the search term.
  • Meaning – This takes the check beyond keywords and looks at synonyms in the content while also determining if there’s a topical or local relevance to the query and adjusting the results accordingly.
  • Quality – This algorithm looks for signals of trustworthiness and authority. Backlinks to prominent websites, content length, and references are signals of expertise.
  • Context – Search engines use additional information from previous searches or your profile to sort and prioritize results. Factors include your location, search history, and settings.
  • Usability – User-friendly websites get priority. Examples of user-friendly signals include security, mobile friendliness, and loading time.

For every search term, it can find hundreds or even thousands of results, but they need to be organized into a list to be useful. Now, the use of algorithms is necessary to determine which pages should feature at the top of the list. The algorithm takes several factors and signals into account, including what you typed, relevance, expertise, usability, your location, and any specific settings. 

Overview of Crawling, Indexing, and Ranking

For a search engine to find and check millions of sites in a few seconds, it needs an index. As Google explains, you don’t need to submit a site for inclusion, as websites are found and included automatically, thanks to web crawlers.

A web crawler is a bot, which is a type of computer program that explores the web, finds sites, and gathers data for the index. It looks at images, text, and videos. When someone enters a search term, the algorithm uses the index information to identify the best pages. This list is known as the ranking, and since people are more likely to visit the websites on the first page of results, you need to be at the top. 

Your website needs to provide high-quality and accurate information to rank on the first page. Site owners optimize their content so that crawlers understand what the site is about. Understanding the rules of what the crawlers look at and how the algorithm works is vital to achieving a high-ranking page.  

Introduction to Google and Other Major Search Engines

Most people start their journey to solving their problems on a search engine’s page, which is why your business needs SEO. Growing your business means being the solution to people’s problems, so appearing in a search engine’s rankings is essential.

Five of the most popular search engines include:

  1. Google 
  2. Bing 
  3. Yahoo
  4. Yandex
  5. DuckDuckGo

Differences between the search engines include how their algorithms work, the number of pages they rank, and the information they provide. You can also find differences in what they track and the level of history and activity data they use to qualify your results. 

What is SEO searched in Bing, Microsoft's search engine.
What is SEO searched in Bing, Microsoft’s search engine.
What is SEO searched in Yahoo!.
What is SEO searched in Yahoo!.
What is SEO searched in Google.
What is SEO searched in Google.

Identical searches on Google, Bing and Yahoo produce different results, not just in the number one ranked site, but how they’re displayed. Bing has listed pages it deems relevant. Yahoo has an ad, a dictionary definition, related searches, and goes on to list a relevant site and video. Google provides an AI overview, the top-ranked site, images, and shows what other people search for.

Users will choose a search engine that matches their preferences. However, it’s fair to say that when it comes to algorithms for determining value and relevance, Google leads the way. It’s always working on improving its algorithms, making the results and options even more relevant and sophisticated. 

For example, Google can take into account other recent search terms, or users can filter results based on the content type, including images, products, videos, maps, news, and more.  Let’s explore two of the key concepts that are vital to SEO success on Google.

  • E-E-A-T – It stands for experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trust, four essential signals of quality that affect ranking. Trust is at the center, as even if a website demonstrates experience, expertise, and authoritativeness, it will have a low E-E-A-T ranking if it is untrustworthy.
  • Core Web Vitals – Known as CWV, this set of metrics measures the user experience through interactivity, loading performance, and visual stability. Improving user experience according to these metrics means a better CWV status, which affects a page’s ranking. 

Key Components of SEO

With a firm understanding of the role search engines play, it’s time to look at optimization, which is where what you do makes a difference. There are several actions you can take to improve your ranking, but they require a little research and some technical know-how.

Keywords and Keyword Research

Since the algorithm checks the index to see if a page matches a person’s search terms, it makes sense to use words and phrases that people enter into search engines in your content. 

You can use SEO tools, including Google Keyword Planner, to discover terms and phrases related to your business. These tools work by showing what phrases people are using in the search engines and the estimated volume. We’ve listed a few tools here, and you can visit the article to find the best free and paid options.

  • Ahrefs
  • BuzzSumo
  • LongTailPro
  • SEO Keywords Spelling Checker

On-Page Optimization Techniques

If you want to learn how to do SEO yourself, your first step is to look at on-page optimization, which focuses on adapting your website. Keywords are just one example of this. Let’s explore the other tweaks and approaches that boost your rankings.

Title Tags, Meta Descriptions, and Headings

Crawlers look at the structure of your page, which includes title tags, meta descriptions, and headings. Aim to have a main keyword for a page or piece of content and ensure it’s in the title tag and meta description.

Users will see the tags and descriptions on the search results page, so it’s essential to make a positive first impression. Most search engines cut titles after 60 characters and descriptions after 160 characters, so aim for that amount or a little less.

Example of a good meta title and description. It clearly points to what the content covers while also including a call to action.
Example of a good meta title and description. It clearly points to what the content covers while also including a call to action.

Content Optimization and Keyword Placement

Content creation goes hand in hand with keyword use. Your content should be engaging, relevant, and useful. In practice, that means using appropriate heading structures so that it’s easy to read and providing enough detail to explain your core topic. Other ways to enhance your offering are to ensure accuracy with references and fact-checking and to ensure the text flows naturally.

Most importantly, it should include your keywords. As mentioned before, pick a main keyword for a piece to show what your content is about. Aim to introduce it right away in the first paragraph so that the crawler finds it easily and understands the intent.

It should appear several times in the articles, although the actual length will determine the number of times you use it, which is known as keyword density. Keyword density is a percentage calculated using the number of times a keyword occurs in the content divided by the total word count. A good density to aim for is 1-3%; any higher, and you could compromise the quality of your text in a practice known as keyword stuffing, which we’ll explore in the mistakes section. 

Image Optimization and Alt Text

Not all of your content is written. Images are much easier for people to digest, and they break up text. When adding images, make sure that the file size is small to prevent delays in loading. The format and dimensions are also important so as not to reduce quality.

You should add alt text to an image to describe what it shows. Adding alt text helps crawlers understand what the image is, which means your images and their alt text should be relevant.

Off-Page Optimization Strategies

Although you can focus on how to do SEO yourself, there are some off-page approaches where you might need to collaborate with others. These strategies focus on efforts in locations other than your website, such as links on other web pages. Let’s explore how that works.

Search engines prioritize reliable sources, which means they need to know what others think of your site. One way to improve your standing is to show that other websites include your links. 

Backlinks are natural insertions on other sites, where your webpage is referred to as a source or relevant additional reading.

Not all backlinks are created equally. There are good and bad links, also known as toxic links. You can assess the quality of the link on a number of factors including domain authority (DA) and domain relevance (DR). Authority checkers can tell you the score for a particular site; the higher, the better. As for relevance, it’s important to prioritize links on sites with topics that connect to your content. 

Social Media Signals and Mentions

Social media is another way to boost your authority from a source outside your website. For example, when you share your content, and other people share and engage with it, that link appears in more places and increases your authority. Several tactics are used to increase social media reach, including working with influencers. 

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Technical SEO Considerations

Since SEO is also about usability, how well your page performs is a crucial component. We answer the question “What is an SEO specialist?” by exploring the technical considerations that fall into their remit when optimizing your website.

Website Speed and Mobile Friendliness

When considering usability, speed, and mobile-friendliness are factors. You need to build your page so that it loads quickly and has a clear layout that works on different devices. Since phones and tablets have different resolutions, your site needs to adapt to those to be considered accessible.

Site Structure and Navigation

Usability also comes down to how your site is organized and how the pages link together. A clear and uncomplicated structure helps crawlers find and gather data quickly and easily.

Navigation should require just a few clicks, which helps crawlers and users get what they’re looking for immediately.

Schema Markup and Structured Data

You, your web developer, or an SEO specialist can add a code known as structured data to your website to improve your visibility. Schema markup is a form of structured data that helps search engines understand the content and context of your pages. Think of it as a knowledge graph showing how your pages are connected in a language appropriate for search engine algorithms.

SEO Best Practices

A combination of all three approaches is required to boost your ranking. To make that simpler for you, we’ve outlined some best practices. After implementing these elements, you’ll quickly understand why your business needs SEO.

Creating High-Quality Relevant Content

Content is crucial to SEO, so creating pieces that are well-organized with something useful to say needs to be at the top of your priority list. Focus on areas that relate to the topic your site, service, or product addresses. It needs to convey something that people need to know in an engaging way. Content is high-quality if it identifies needs, solves problems, and provides value through entertainment, education, or a sense of community. 

High-quality content that’s relevant helps crawlers understand your site, helps users solve problems, and is more likely to be linked by other sites. Publish general and specialized content to help audiences with different needs and establish your expertise in that area.

While your content is taking care of demonstrating your expertise, you need to focus on your authority. A strong backlink profile can do that if you follow these best practices:

  1. Identify high-ranking and relevant websites.
  2. Reach out to them to discuss a possible link.
  3. Have links to high-quality content ready to offer.
  4. Check your results, adjust, and repeat these steps.

Strategies for building a backlink profile include:

  • Becoming a news source, such as through the free service Help a Reporter Out (HARO)
  • Creating skyscraper content, which involves creating something that improves on the top-ranking site for a specific keyword
  • Find and connect with authority resource pages, as their sole purpose is to link to other sites

No matter which strategies you use, it’s critical to avoid common pitfalls. They include building links to low-authority and non-relevant sites, links featured in a negative context, and focusing only on links with anchor text that’s an exact match to your keywords. 

Search engine algorithms take a user’s location into account, which means you should, too. Improved relevance increases trust. Small businesses, in particular, should pay attention to targeting their local area. It’s an excellent way to appear high up in the rankings when people in your location use certain terms. These tips can help:

  1. Claim your Google business listing
  2. Use location-based keywords in your content
  3. Add links to and seek links from other local businesses
  4. Get listings in local directories

Monitoring and Analyzing SEO Performance

A vital lesson to learn when working out how to do SEO yourself is that it’s not one task but an ongoing process. Make monitoring and analyzing your performance part of your approach. You should make changes, review results, adapt and continue, not just to improve but to stay up to date with changing algorithms, and business and user needs.

Using Tools Like Google Analytics and Google Search Console

Tools like Google Analytics and Search Console provide suggestions for what to track, allow you to compare your performance, and give an excellent visual overview. You’ll understand your traffic, gain insights into what people search for and see how well keywords and pages are performing. 

Here are some key metrics to monitor and analyze:

  • Organic traffic
  • Keyword rankings
  • Referring domains
  • Organic traffic conversions
  • Core web vitals

Common SEO Mistakes to Avoid

You can have too much of a good thing, especially when the focus turns to quantity instead of quality. That applies to keywords and backlinks. Most SEO mistakes come from focusing on crawlers and algorithms and forgetting your users. Here are the common ones to avoid.

Keyword Stuffing and Over-Optimization

Focusing too much on the keywords that get the crawlers’ attention means your content will suffer. A practice, known as keyword stuffing, involves including lots of mentions of your main keyword to a point where it affects the readability and flow of the text. 

Instead of coherent and relevant sentences, the content becomes repetitive, and if it’s not high-quality, then the experience and expertise diminish, and so does your ranking. Pasting your text into a keyword density checking tool can tell you if you’ve gone over the ideal range, which is 1-3%.

Neglecting Technical SEO Issues

You might not understand the technical side, but that doesn’t mean you can forget about it. That’s why it’s essential to get the required expertise. An SEO specialist can audit and review your performance and suggest and implement changes. 

Making technical SEO part of your regular monitoring and analysis is an excellent start. Areas to focus on are load times, checking for duplicate content, tidying up URLs, and running UX testing for navigation.   

Ignoring the Importance of Mobile Optimization

Mobile access accounts for more than 50% of internet traffic, which means you can’t afford to neglect a large audience that’s trying to access your site. It needs to look just as good for them for you to rank well.

Mobile optimization encompasses several different areas, including responsiveness, navigation, and performance. A mobile-first design approach is best, which means you start with compressed files, focus on displaying essential content, and keep navigation intuitive. Device testing is a vital way to ensure your efforts have paid off.

Failing to Track and Measure SEO Performance

Your time and efforts will be wasted if you can’t see your progress and know what works. Be deliberate by setting up analytics, using tracking and measuring tools, and setting targets to evaluate the performance of each approach. SEO is a process of refinement rather than a series of shortcuts to the top.

Every industry and target audience has nuances, which is why there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to SEO. One of the best ways to see what counts as relevant, trustworthy and high-quality in your sector is to test some approaches, track and measure the performance and then react accordingly. 

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The importance of online visibility is only going to grow, and there will be new ways to address SEO. Here are some upcoming trends to keep in mind.

Voice Search Optimization

Voice assistants are becoming more prevalent, especially with smart home devices. Spoken commands differ from the way people will write their search queries. They’re subtle differences, but it means SEO approaches need to take into account how people find content.

You can anticipate those needs by adjusting the tone and keywords in your content. It will need to match the way spoken questions are asked with more natural language. Structured data will also need to adapt to follow suit.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

AI search is another consideration. It means that, although the user is the main focus, the technical aspects and communication through schema markup will become more important. We’re already seeing AI overviews on Google that provide summaries, particularly when questions are part of the search query.  

AI is a tool that both search engines and website owners can use. Search engines are using it to improve the way they list accurate and relevant pages. Website owners can use artificial intelligence in their digital marketing tactics, which means it can also help you implement successful SEO practices.

Using an image or pointing a camera at something to search for it is becoming more popular. Since photos and videos are faster and more engaging ways to explain topics and demonstrate benefits, search engines need to keep up with user preferences. 

Functions like Google Lens and Circle to Search mean users can quickly find accurate results based on existing images. In some cases, they don’t even need to move away from what they’re looking at, which adds to the convenience. Adding relevant images and video, as well as alt text, will help you stay ahead of the curve.

The Importance of User Experience (UX) in SEO

Despite the increase in AI use, it’s essential to remember that engines and algorithms are facilitators. People are the end users, and search engines will prioritize websites that engage and inform them. While navigation and speed are essential components, content is vital, too.

Before we had E-E-A-T, we just had E-A-T; Google added experience as a key signal of quality, which is a sign of the growing focus on relating something based on experience. Content written from first-hand knowledge leads to an enhanced user experience. It’s more relevant, they can relate to the content, and they can find quick takeaways to implement and solve problems.


SEO sounds daunting, but it boils down to communicating clearly with users and search engine bots and algorithms to ensure visibility. 

Key Takeaways

People find their solutions online by using search engines, which is why your business needs SEO. There are several ways to optimize your site to improve your ranking, including on-page, off-page, and technical SEO. Top content, backlinks, and reviewing your performance are three crucial best practices.

Implement SEO Strategies

If you’re wondering how to do SEO yourself, you’re now equipped with the understanding and next steps to implement a strategy. While you can take on some of the work, there are bound to be areas where external expertise will help.

Stay Up-To-Date With Best Practices

With SEO demystified, you now have a strong foundation for enhancing your website’s visibility through trust, authority, and expertise. Keep exploring SEO insights to learn more about the latest trends and best practices.

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Chantelle van Heerden

Chantelle started her career in IT before finding her way into Marketing. This eventually became her passion, along with Digital Marketing, SEO, and Brand and Web Development. Today, she helps businesses find their voice and grow online. Follow on LinkedIn.

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