When you search online for something, do you ever look at more than the first page of results?
If not, then you’re one of the estimated 75% to 90% of users who never get beyond page one.
With those sorts of figures, it’s clear that appearing on the first page significantly increases the chances of a website being seen.
But – other than by paying for an advert – how can you get on to that first page?
The answer is by harnessing the power of search engine optimisation (SEO).
But what exactly is SEO, how does it work and can you do it yourself?
This guide aims to answer those questions.
The objective of SEO is to get your web pages to appear on the first page of Google in response to searches made by relevant users.
Note that it’s about web pages, not web sites and that SEO isn’t about paid advertisements: the emphasis is on moving your pages up the list of organic search results – the ones that naturally appear in response to a keyword search query.
By making your pages so attractive to Google that it can’t resist displaying them in response to people entering relevant search terms, a successful SEO campaign will get your web pages appearing in the number one spot on page one.
That number one position is important. Data from Sistrix shows that the first result shown on page one gets an average of 28.5% of clicks, with the second result getting 15.7% and the third 11%. By the time you get to result number 10, clicks are averaging just 2.5%.
Although this guide talks about Google, SEO techniques can be applied to whatever search engine you might be targeting. However, given its status as the world’s most popular search tool (see pie chart), most SEO activity focuses on getting web pages to number one on Google.
Understanding search engines
A search engine is a computer program used to find information on the internet, typically in response to one or more keywords being typed in.
They work by performing three distinct actions: crawling, indexing and ranking:
Stage 1 – Crawling
Also known as ‘spiders’ and ‘robots’, ‘crawlers’ find and analyse information on websites by following links both to pages on the same site (internal links) and to pages on other sites (external links).
By following links, analysing content and seeing how various pages and sites are connected, crawlers build up a picture of what a website and its pages are about and how relevant individual pages might be to a keyword search.
To assess the relevance of a page, search engines look at keywords, including how frequently they appear, whether they appear in headings and, if they do, how well those headings match the content of both the page and the site.
Stage 2 – Indexing
Once a website has been crawled, the search engine decides if its content is worth indexing. If it is, the content is added to the engine’s database and becomes available for display on search engine results pages (SERPs) in response to keyword searches.
Every word on a page that Google indexes (other than those listed as a ‘stop’ word) is added to the database and Google’s index now contains hundreds of billions of web pages.
However, because search engines want to present their users with the most relevant information, not all content is indexed. Pages with low quality content might well be ignored, so to guarantee being indexed, a site should offer content that is both unique and valuable.
Stage 3 – Ranking
The final stage is for a website to be ranked.
Deciding which of the pages that it has indexed should be displayed in response to a search is a task for a search engine’s algorithms.
It’s generally accepted that Google uses over 200 factors to assess how well a page ranks. They include whether and where keywords are found, whether a page loads quickly and is mobile friendly, and whether a web page and the site of which it is part can be considered a reputable source of information for a particular subject.
In response to a search, the most relevant organic results are ranked and then displayed on a series of SERPs.
How does SEO work?
In order to persuade Google to display your website’s pages as high up the list of search results as possible, the process of search engine optimisation focuses on a number of objectives related to both internal website issues and external factors – known in the jargon as on-page and off-page optimisation respectively.
The term on-page optimisation, or on-page SEO, refers to addressing issues on your website, in order to maximise the potential for pages to be found, indexed and ranked by search engines.
Search engine crawlers only see text: there are no vibrant colours and stunning images, just words. So if your pages are to be discovered by potential customers, you must provide content that a crawler can read.
Activities associated with on-page SEO therefore include creating high quality, useful content and making sure that keywords appear in relevant places, such as title tags, meta descriptions and image alt tags.
On-page SEO also covers things like creating good URLs for pages and blog posts, reducing the size of image files and making sure that your website is responsive so that mobile users can easily use it.
The aim of off-page optimisation is to increase awareness of your site and its contents by engaging in activities beyond its borders.
It is essentially a means of bringing your pages to the attention of other people and websites through activities such as social media marketing and posting in relevant online forums.
Another objective of off-page SEO is to get other websites to link to your pages, through a process called link building. Known as ‘backlinks’, these are an important ranking factor for Google; the more backlinks you have from reputable sources, the more significant your site is considered to be.
Doing SEO yourself
Once you understand what SEO is and how it works, you might fancy trying it yourself rather than paying someone to do it for you.
If you know how your website is structured, can change its contents, add metadata, can write reasonably well, and have plenty of time and patience, then search engine optimisation might be worth a go.
Just be aware that SEO is rarely a quick fix. It’s usually an ongoing process, which can take anything from weeks to years to achieve success.
But if you’d like to give it a try, here are five things you can do to get started:
1 – Build a keyword list
Think about how your website visitors might search for your products, services etc and build a list of 10-20 keywords that you think they’ll use.
Try focusing on ‘long-tail’ keywords: phrases of three or more words that have relatively low search volumes but also less competition than ‘short tail’ keywords.
Long-tail keywords attract less attention individually, but if you can rank highly for enough of them, then collectively they can generate sufficient traffic to make the effort worthwhile.
2 – Search Google yourself
Using your keyword list, do your own Google search for each one and see where your pages appear in the SERPs.
SEO is about improving your keyword ranking, so note the date of the search and where each term appears in the SERPs (page number and position), so that you have something to act as a baseline to chart your progress.
3 – Set your SEO goals
Once you’ve got an idea of how your keywords are ranking, set yourself some goals, such as getting a few key phrases on to page one of Google within a certain timescale or generating a minimum number of visits to your website.
Be realistic: success with SEO can take time and it’s better to achieve smaller gains and remain positive than to set yourself an unrealistic target and give up.
4 – Install an SEO plugin
If you’ve built your website using WordPress, then think about installing an SEO plugin such as Yoast, Rank Math or The SEO Framework which can help enormously in improving your SEO results.
5 – Write good content
The key to getting your page to rank highly on Google is good content. Google wants to know why it should display your page above those of your competitors.
Publishing material that is both unique and valuable will answer that question and ensure that your pages are indexed, their contents added to the engine’s database and that they are displayed on SERPs in response to keyword searches.
More ideas for better SEO
As a bonus, here are 12 other ways in which you can help make your website and its pages more appealing to Google and other search engines:
1) Give all your pages unique titles.
2) Make sure that the content of each page is different.
3) Make sure your content is readable. Avoid large blocks of text, use colours that make your words easy to see on the screen, and use UPPER CASE sparingly.
4) Add new content regularly and give old content a makeover.
5) Emphasise important pages by using internal links.
6) Use relevant keywords in page titles, headings, alt image tags and other places, but make sure that texts read naturally and aren’t just full of keywords.
7) Write for people, not search engines, and try to use simple language.
8) Demonstrate your expertise by writing – and maintaining – a blog.
9) Answer questions that your visitors might have via a FAQ section.
10) Optimise images to reduce page loading time.
11) Make sure your site has an SSL certificate.
12) Use social media to highlight and share your content.
* An expanded version of this article, which includes many links to additional sources, is available to download as A guide to search engine optimisation [PDF].