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What is SEO? A Beginners Guide [Updated]

The beginner’s guide to SEO helping newcomers understand what is SEO and why people, including us, talk about it so much. Updated November 2015.

We have to remember that not everyone knows about Search Engine Optimisation and many new people every day seek out information on the subject or search haphazardly for reputable SEO services. With that in mind, this article goes back to basics and will hopefully be of help to those new to the subject.

What is Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)?

SEO is the practice of improving and promoting a website in order to increase it’s position in organic search results. The term organic refers to the search results that aren’t paid for or sponsored.

The term ‘search result’ simply refers to the page you are presented after you type in your search query. The search query is also known as the key phrase which is a collection of keywords. For example “buy red jumper online” where “red jumper” is the keyword part of the phrase. The entire phrase would be referred to as the ‘longtail’.

There are many aspects to Search Engine Optimisation, from the content on your page to the way other sites link to you on the web. Sometimes SEO is simply a matter of making sure your website is structured in a way that search engines understand.

Ultimately effective SEO improves a website’s search positions in the search results which in turn equate to greater exposure and an increase in website traffic.

search-engine-market-share

Does my website need SEO?

The majority of web traffic is driven by the big three commercial Search Engines – Google, Bing and Yahoo!. Google’s share of the search market equates to nearly 90% of all searches made and is therefore used as the benchmark on which to measure SEO success.

Of course it’s not just Search Engines that drive traffic to your website. Social Media and other types of traffic can generate visits to your website; however Search Engines are the primary method of navigation for most Internet users.

With the above in mind it’s clear to see why your website needs to be found prominently in search results. If your site cannot be found by search engines or your content cannot be put into their databases, you miss out on traffic and the potential revenue that traffic may bring.

Furthermore targeted visitors to a website can provide not only revenue but publicity and exposure like no other channel of marketing. Investing in SEO, whether through time or finances, can have an exceptional rate of return compared to traditional marketing methods.


Consider links to a website as a handshake, a recommendation of sorts

What is link building and backlinks?

For Search Engines that crawl the web, links are the roads between pages. Using sophisticated link analysis, the engines can discover how pages are related to each other and in what ways.

Link algorithms are complex but in short the more links from authoritative websites to another infers trust. In addition the more relevant and trustworthy the link source, the stronger the trust built from that link.

Consider links to a website as a handshake, a recommendation of sorts, and so the more backlinks the stronger the authority of the reciprocal website and webpage.

Penguin Who, Panda What?

If you’ve been reading about SEO or are perhaps in the market to procure SEO services then you’ve probably heard the terms “Google Panda” and “Google Penguin”. These terms refer to the major Google algorithm updates that affect how Google ranks and displays each website in the search results.

These algorithm updates are aimed at decreasing the Search Engine rankings of websites that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by using blackhat SEO techniques.

what-is-seo

The Colour of My Hat is Relevant How?

Blackhat, also referred to as spam, is the term used for those companies and individuals involved in artificially increasing the ranking of a webpage by manipulating the number of links pointing to the page. On the flipside the term Whitehat refers to ethical and acceptable SEO practises.

The below list is typical of ‘SEO services’ being offered by cheap or questionable SEO companies. They often prescribe a set number of the below links for a set fee. It’s almost guaranteed that these so called services are merely automated processes that spam your website’s link across irrelevant low quality sites that do more harm than good.

  • Blog commenting
  • Directory submissions
  • Social bookmarking
  • Web 2.0 links
  • Article directories
  • Wiki links

Essentially if an SEO consultant or company is offering a fixed number of links for a fixed price then alarm bells should sound because this is unnatural link building and in time will get your website penalised.


You’ve built your business on a solid foundation, why set out to erode it with bargain-basement SEO?

If You Budget for a Banger, Don’t Expect Reliability

It’s the age old car buying analogy I’m afraid, but it stands to reason that spending a little on something you expect to be reliable is going to be an issue. SEO is exactly the same, a company or individual offering the services we do for a fraction of the price simply cannot compete on quality. Quality in SEO terms means safeguarding your business and your website.

You’ve built your business on a solid foundation, why set out to erode it with budget SEO?

Caffeine, but Hummingbirds Don’t Drink Coffee?

In addition to the Google Penguin updates you may have also heard about Caffeine and more recently Hummingbird, again both are codenames for the search algorithm updates rolled out bt Google. If you’d like to read more on the subject we’d recommend the following moz.com article – http://moz.com/google-algorithm-change

Remember, Google isn’t Your Enemy

We hear it often, Penguin this Panda that, “they destroyed my website traffic”, they being Google of course. Needless to say Google isn’t out to do you harm, or hamper your website. They are curating a very long list of best practises and ideals that cement their search results with a view to providing the most recent and relevant results to audiences the world over.

It’s also worth remembering how massive and complex the World Wide Web actually is. Google isn’t perfect and nor are search results, however with every update Google strives to improve the quality of the information served to its searching customers.


If you have experienced a loss of traffic due to a drop in search rankings there’s usually a good reason for it

So what’s wrong with traditional SEO?

The old ways focus on keyword research, finding search volume and then create a blog or page based around, and often stuffed with, the chosen keyword. Unfortunately this content is often a quick rehash of an already saturated subject. Nothing new, fresh or exciting. Worse this content is used as a doorway page.

Then of course there’s linkbuilding the wrong way, manually placing or buying links to your newly created content is order to try and gain rankings.

Finally the old way would plumb in the keyword in to the chosen rank checking tool and sit back, the work is done.

The key issue is that high volume keywords are competitive. High volume search terms require quality content and all the signals that accompany such content. A thin rehash piece isn’t going to get you traction in these highly competitive SERPs.

Google is fighting the above approach, they don’t like the concept of thin or average content performing well in their rankings, nor do they accept the mass linkbuilding practise of old to be valid.

If you’re still doing this, then come on – you can’t be serious – it’s not 2009! Things have [thankfully] moved on.

What does ‘modern’ SEO look like?

Modern SEO or ‘link building’ is heavily biased towards content. No doubt you’ll have heard the term “quality content” banded around readily. Creating and publishing content that is of high quality and value to people, with the right level of promotion, will earn you links. It’s that simple.

But what is ‘quality content’ I hear your cry!

Rand Fishkin presented a highly valuable video – How To Provide Unique Value In Your Content. To paraphrase Rand; Content is more than a race to publish, your content needs to provide unique value to make an impact and be heard above the noise.

The modern criteria for content looks like this:

  • One of a kind – it doesn’t appear elsewhere on the web
  • Relevant – contains content both humans and search engines can interpret as on-topic
  • Helpful – resolves the search query in a useful and efficient manner
  • Uniquely valuable – provides information that’s unavailable or hard to find elsewhere
  • Great UX – is easy on the eye and pleasurable to consume on any device

Linkbuilding isn’t dead; the old SEO is dead

Don’t get your website annihilated by a Google penalty, let’s do things the right way. So what should we be doing and why?

We should be protecting ourselves from ourselves (and therefore Google) i.e. no short-cuts. SEO is tricky, that’s why people make mistakes, get it wrong and tank in the rankings.

The correct approach to developing a piece of high quality content goes something like this:

  1. Audience research – discover your audiences search intent, find talk of your chosen topic on forums, Quora, Yahoo, Q&A sites, social media, Twitter hashtags, blog comments such as Disqus and even other articles on the web
  2. Keyword research – still relevant but aligned with audience. Knowing the audience allows much more extensive research and not just firing top level terms at Google’s Keyword Tool
  3. Semantic search – going beyond keywords and understanding the relationship between topics and context, enabling us to build content around themes more than mere keywords
  4. Editorial strategy – useful quality content that has more legs than just keyword optimised pages, always provide unique value
  5. Content promotion – backlinks should come naturally via online promotion, sharing and content amplification
  6. Build relationships – approach like-minded webmasters and share your content with each other to build mutually beneficial ties
  7. Community – build loyalty by getting involved in discussions and provide valuable feedback on other articles
  8. Earn links – do go placing or buying links, your efforts are better served earning them through a process much like the above

Has your website been negatively affected by SEO?

If you have experienced a loss of traffic due to a drop in search rankings there’s likely a good reason for it. Perhaps your content and website structure isn’t optimal or worse you hired a ‘cheap’ SEO company to do your bidding?

Take a look at our new SEO starter guide for valuable guidance and assistance.

Ed Leake

Author: Ed Leake

Ed is the director of Midas Media and has served in the technology industry for just shy of twenty years. Ed believes in the constant development, improvement and the maturing of ideas. Outside of work Ed enjoys motorsport, yet more fresh coffee and doughnuts.

  • Swayna

    very nice article for the beginners as provide lots of information. Search engine optimization is many things, it’s an art and it’s a a science. SEO is creative and it’s technical. It’s logical, parasitic and opportunistic. The aim of seo is to maximise targeted types of valuable traffic to a website from search engines by improving the visibility of said website in Google organic or unpaid SERPS. Thanks for sharing..great tutorial.

  • Cassie

    Thanks for posting this ! It takes the mysticism out of those who talk about SEO as if it is something only long practiced web designers or PR/marketing types can be good at! I’ve printed it out to add to my research library, and I plan to put it in practice right away.

    Are you going to expand on it, going in to more detail on SEO?

  • Pingback: Top 25 Web Education Resources for Learning about SEO – UpCity()

  • awesome article, happy i came across it

    • Thanks Andre – nearly a year old now, but still relevant. We’re working on better articles with a bit more depth, for the new year. 🙂

  • awesome article, happy i came across it

    • Thanks Andre – nearly a year old now, but still relevant. We’re working on better articles with a bit more depth, for the new year. 🙂

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