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Search Engine Optimisation: a beginner’s SEO guide [2021]

Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO is probably something you've heard talked about a lot by digital agencies. But what does it mean? How does it work? And why does it matter?

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This guide takes you through all the SEO basics, including:

Whether you're a complete stranger to search engines, or have a good idea of why it's so important for your site, this guide should give you all the information you need.

It should be the tool you need to get started on your own SEO campaign, or to assess whether your SEO company is giving you good value for money.


What does SEO mean?

Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO is the process of getting your website to the top of search results.*

Just like any kind of marketing, marketing online to make your website get noticed isn't a quick fix or a magic bullet, it's a wide ranging combination of tips and strategies both on and off-site.

There are two main areas for SEO, Organic and Pay Per Click. 

Pay Per Click marketing is using a service like Google Adwords to place adverts for certain keywords, and you set an amount of money you're happy to pay each time someone clicks on that ad to go to your site.

Organic SEO is more of a long-term strategy, where you try and show search engines that your website is relevant for certain key words and phrases so it lists you highly for them without you needing to pay for ads. 

Organic SEO doesn't usually require a big budget, but can require patience and time, and usually a combination of different approaches.

Search engine algorithms are incredibly complex and are always changing. 

In general, the best advice is to stick to terms that are relevant and will bring you the sort of customers you actually want. 

It might take longer, require more work or mean you need to settle for being at the bottom of the first page, but it's better to be ranked lower for a term that brings you customers than to be ranked top for a term no-one is searching for. 

At the end of the day having millions of people on your site who don't want or can't use your service doesn't get you anywhere.

Smart SEO starts with your customer, and working out what they want.

Remember: Search engines are trying to give users the most accurate and relevant results when they search, so trying to "game" the system isn't going to help you

The best way to approach your SEO strategy is to think "who do I want on my website - and what would they be searching for?".

* Please note, throughout this article I may refer to "Google" instead of search engines.

Of course SEO applies to all search engines, just as Pay Per Click advertising and Analytics software are available from other search engines and providers. 

I have referred to Google mostly because it is by far the biggest provider and most used search engine. 

Plus, it's easier to type….


Measuring Success

It's all well and good to establish good SEO practices, but if you don't have a way to measure your success, it's going to be difficult to know what's really working for you.


Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs are what you can use to determine success. 

Your KPIs should include strategic goals for increases in online turnover, ranking for certain keywords or a reduction in bounce rates.

A KPI should be a data driven method. Something measurable. 

So "improving the user experience" isn't a KPI, but reducing the number of abandoned shopping carts is.

UX analysis

User Experience Design (UX Design) is becoming more and more important to Google, because it's important to users. Your should definitely do UX testing on your web project to make sure that it's performing they way you need it to - and that users are having a great experience too.

There are loads of ways to do constructive UX testing, you can have a look at our top ten UX testing methods.


SEO quick wins

Before we get into all the different aspects of SEO, there are a couple of quick wins that could help your site rank higher.

This might not apply to you if you have a lovely new website, but if your site is a few years old, it's probably worth checking you've got these bases covered.


A responsive website is one that changes format when you're viewing it on a phone or tablet. 

If you need to zoom or scroll sideways to see your website when you view it on your phone, then you need a responsive website.

Search engines have been marking non-responsive websites down for a couple of years now.

Even just from a customer perspective, so many people use phones and tablets to search for companies and services now, it's just essential.

If you don't have a responsive website, ask your designers for a quote to convert it.

It won't just help your rankings, you will probably find visitors spending longer on your site if they can use it on different devices.


SSL certificates used to be solely for transactional websites. You only really needed one if you were selling online or if you were gathering personal information. 

However, in the past year or so, browsers have been pushing all websites to be secured by SSL to improve security. 

If your website doesn't have an SSL certificate, you may have noticed a grey "Not Secure" message appear in the URL, which at some point will become red to make it stand out more.

Search engines have also started ranking non-SSL websites lower, and promoting websites that are more secure.

If you don't have an SSL certificate, contact your hosting provider to get one for your site (you may also need to ask your web developer to instal it for you).


The Right Terms

All SEO should start with the question: "what will my customers be searching for?".

Identifying the words you want to rank for will really help you focus your strategy, and prevent you from wasting time, energy and money on search terms that are too general or not really what you offer.


If you work in a specific area, using geographic keywords in your target search terms is a really good idea. 

If you're a plumber in Essex, enquiries from Edinburgh aren't going to get you very far.

Including counties, regions or towns that you work in as part of your keywords means you're not trying to compete with every other business like yours on the internet.

You've already narrowed down your competition to just the people around you, and narrowed down your target audience to the people who are looking for your service where you are.

Remember: People used to try to game the system by just listing all the towns in their local area. 

Search engines noticed and started marking sites that did this down, so it's important to use location keywords organically.


The most expensive term on the internet for a very long time, was "insurance". 

Trying to rank for that word would set you back phenomenal amounts of money for every click, but for the enormous companies that provide all types of insurances, that expense was worth it.

That's all well and good if you're a multinational corporation, but for a lot of businesses focusing solely on your main service as a keyword can mean you're missing out on opportunities. 

Not everyone is searching for an obvious term.

Let's use our Essex plumber as an example, their customers are probably searching for the term "Essex plumber".

But they might also be looking for "bathroom installation" or "fix washing machine". 

Remember: Sometimes the less obvious keyphrases can get you higher up the listings - but that's only a good strategy if people are actually searching for those terms. 


Keyword Research

When you've got an idea of the search terms you think people will use, it's a really good idea to back that up with a bit of research.


Getting Google Analytics on your website is a must if you are planning to do any sort of SEO. 

It's free and really easy for your developer to install, so if you don't have an account already - get one set up!

Putting analytics on your website will show you how your site is currently performing, how many unique visitors you're getting, how they got to your site and what search terms they used to find you. 

Analytics will also show you how long someone is on your website.

So for example, if a particular search term is bringing loads of people to your website, but they're all leaving immediately, it's showing you that you probably weren't what they were looking for.

That means either you don't provide the service they're after and you probably shouldn't be targeting that keyphrase, or people don't THINK you provide that service, in which case you should rework your content to make it clear that you do.

Remember: Beyond the research phase, analytics will give you the best way to track how your SEO campaign is doing, as you'll be able to see visitor trends and patterns and work out what strategies are working for you.


It might sound silly, but just searching for your target keywords to see where you currently rank for them, and whether anyone's paying for ads for those services can be really helpful.

In some cases you might find that a keyphrase is being dominated by lots of big companies with paid ads.

In some cases you might find you're already ranking well but it's not translating into more visitors.

In some cases you might find that a search term isn't really being used, so there's an opportunity to see if that could be successful for you.

Remember: Always do these searches in an Incognito window, which strips out all your personal preferences and browsing history. 

Otherwise you will not be getting a true picture, it will be skewed by your own browsing habits.


Spending money on research can be daunting, but a short Pay Per Click campaign can give you really useful feedback.

PPC, such as Google Ads (which used to be Google Adwords)* is where you have your listing appear in the paid-for section of search results.

You choose what search terms your ad appears for, how much you want to pay for each person who clicks on that ad, and which page of your website that link takes them to.

You can set budgets for the day, week or month as well as controlling how much you pay for each click.

So you can set the maximum amount you want to spend on your research and know you can't go over budget.

PPC is an incredibly powerful service, and you can tailor your ads in a huge number of ways, by restricting them to a country, or turning them off at weekends or overnight. 

There's a huge amount of control, and if you can get into it, Google Ads can provide you with a huge amount of value.

If playing around with statistics and probabilities isn't your cup of tea however, Adwords can still have some real value in showing you what keywords are likely to bring you success.

Paid ads generally appear above organic listings (unless there are lots of other companies using adwords for that particular term), so it allows you to suss out whether that keyphrase is likely to bring you clients without having to do the hard work of trying to rank for it organically.

Remember: It's a good idea to work out the actual value of your key search terms. 

If every person who clicks on an ad for keyphrase A actually gets in touch with you, it might be worth paying a bit more to make sure that ad ranks higher. 

If ad B is really cheap and gets loads of clicks, but they all leave the site again immediately - is it really worth it? 

In the end the value of a term isn't the number of people who click, but the number of people who call, email or buy.

*Please Note: every search engine has its own PPC platform where you can buy adverts, but I'm using Google Ads as an example because it's the most popular.


There are lots of ways to test how people interact with your website and to see if there are improvements to be made or obvious places users are dropping out of the process.

When it comes to UX testing, you might want to take a look at our Top 10 UX Testing Methods for a roundup of the tests that could  help with your SEO.



On Site SEO

Once you've got a good idea what keywords and phrases you want to rank for, it's time to take a look at your website.

General Content

Making sure you've got good, keyword-rich content is a delicate balancing act. 

You want to make sure you've got your key phrases scattered nicely through your text, but you also need to remember that you're talking to humans as well as to search engines.

Good content will give your visitors an overview of who you are and what you do, using key words and phrases organically. 

Never forget that your target audience isn't Google, it's the people who are actually looking for your service, Google is just the tool you're using to FIND your target audience (and for them to find you). 

Keeping your content fresh is also helpful, as search engines like a regularly updated site. 

If you have the time and inspiration, a blog or news section can be really good for adding valuable, organically keyword heavy content to your site. 

However, we only advise this if you can absolutely guarantee you'll be posting a couple of times a month - nothing says "out of date" to a visitor like a blog that's not been updated in six months.

Remember: Search engines are clever enough to know that a list of locations or key words at the bottom of a page isn't relevant, organic content, and they will actually mark you down if you try this tactic. 

Also - whiting out keywords in the background is a big faux-pas, you might find yourself heavily punished if Google thinks you're trying to game the system.


Good, keyword rich headings can also help you rank for specific terms, and as a plus, are really great for showing visitors what you provide. 

Going back to our plumber, a heading on one of his pages for "Bathroom installations" is going to be more helpful than a bullet point half way down a "Services" page.

Remember: Headings do need to be coded properly with the right tags - just making the font bigger won't work. 

If you don't know how to make a proper heading on your site, have a chat with your web agency.


Another really good way to improve organic SEO rankings is to create new, relevant content on your website.

If you regularly have new products on your website, then that can be a great way to include organically keyworded content.

If you don't list products on site, it might be best to think about using a News, Blog or Case Studies section to get fresh new content.

Blogs and News sections are great for content marketing, as writing about your company or industry will naturally require the use of keywords, without if feeling fake or forced. 

You will need to keep a balance of producing regular content, but keeping the quality high. 

An article every day that users don't really care about isn't going to help. But one amazing article a year isn't great either.

Ideally you want to be producing good articles every couple of weeks, and one fab article every month. That's the sweet spot.

Case studies can also be a good method of content marketing, and generally don't need updating quite as often as News or a Blog.

As well as providing you with good, relevant content, the very act of updating your website gives you a little SEO boost, as search engines like websites to be updated regularly.

Case Studies, Blogs and News items can also be folded in to your Social Media strategy, as telling people about your new content gives you a good reason to tweet, post and link to your website.

Remember: Content marketing like this needs to be kept up. I can't tell you how often we've seen clients pay to have an articles section which has been abandoned after a few months. 

Writing is difficult and time consuming, it's easy to think "oh I've got ideas for 6 articles already" and then discover that's all you have. 

Another danger is writing dozens of short articles with no real purpose. Investing in a really good article every couple of weeks is better than a scattergun approach full of articles that have no value.

So always think carefully before committing to article creation, or maybe speak to a copywriter about producing regular, high quality content for you.

And, if you do have a high quality, content-rich blog, it might be time to think about your blog's internal linking strategy too.


By far the most valuable on-site tool for SEO. Metadata is where you tell search engines what this page on your site is about, and what you think it should be ranking for.

Metadata is also what shows up in your organic search listing, much like this:

This Is a Meta Title That Links to Your Page This is the Meta Description where you can go into more detail and ensure people know they'll get what they need on your website.

The first element is your Meta Title. This needs to tell search engines what your page is about in under 70 characters. 

Each page should have a unique Meta Title, which should save you from having your website's different pages competing against each other for search terms.

Having distinct titles for each page gives you the opportunity to target each page towards the service people want, whether that's finding out more about what you offer, or just getting your contact information.

Your Meta Description is where you can be a bit more descriptive about what's on each page, and you have around 160 characters to go into more depth. 


If you really want to push your SEO to the next level, it might be worth considering a redesign of your current website. 

Really the value of this is going to depend on how heavily you want to promote your website, and how directly you expect to gain custom from it.

If you do decide to go down the full redesign route, make sure that SEO and UX are at the forefront of your brief. 

UX is design that looks at how users interact with and navigate a website, to provide them with the best experience and guide them to a desired outcome, whether that's picking up the phone, emailing, signing up to a mailing list, booking or buying.

If you want to know more about UX, have a read through our Complete and Utter UX Guide.

Your redesign may need to include landing pages created specifically for SEO campaigns, or particular functionality designed to create engagement with the site.

Remember: An SEO focused redesign is not going to come cheap, so make sure you've done your research and you're sure this is the best method to boost your business.


Off-Site SEO

Once you've optimised your site, it's time to focus on external opportunities. 

This is where the biggest gains are likely to be made, but they often require more work and time than on-site optimisation.

Link Building

A great way to show the relevance of your website, but not easy to manage. 

Each link to your website is seen as a vote of confidence, but in this game, not all votes are equal.

In the past, people used link directories to gather as many links to their website as possible, or did link exchanges (you link to someone else's website, and they link back to yours) to boost their ranking. 

Search engines quickly cottoned on to this, and now these sorts of shenanigans are going to get your site marked down.

However, links do still have good value, and a link from say, your local council, or the BBC will have a lot of value, as those will be considered to be reputable websites. 

It also makes a difference what those links say, for example, a link to your website that references your target keywords is going to boost your relevance for those terms.

One of the best ways to boost your link building is by creating content. If you're producing an interesting or useful blog for example, people are more likely to link to it. 

If you then use your social media accounts to promote your articles, you're widening your opportunities for your blog to be picked up, shared and linked to.

Remember: There's no single solution for boosting your organic SEO, the best way to approach it is to use all the tools you can, so your social media, content and email marketing all feed into each other.

Mailing Lists

Some people benefit from setting up mailing lists and newsletters for their visitors. This enables you to capture data and identify interested parties.

People generally only sign up to things like this if they believe they can get value from them, so if you send out a great newsletter, or new price lists to your customers once a month, it might be worth having a signup on your website.

If you don't expect to have regular updates, then if you have a really good ebook, white paper or video, you can also offer that to people who provide you with their email address, so you can get contact details of genuinely interested customers.

Remember: You do have to be careful to make sure that any mailing lists are managed according to GDPR regulations (we find that using a service like Mailchimp usually helps with that, as they automatically include unsubscribe links etc.).


For some businesses, there are community websites where you can also promote your business. Sites like Trust a Trader, Tripadvisor, Hitched or the Law Society can all let you list your business and often rank higher in organic listings than your site can manage by itself.

Having a presence on sites like this, and linking through to your site site to reinforce your reputation can also bring more interested people to you.

It can also be a good idea to set up a Business Listing on search engines like Google, to make sure they know who and where you are.

Remember: It's important that you are only using reputable, well known websites for this, and not just a random directory. 

Social Media

Social Media is the marketing method that everyone imagines will revolutionise their business, and in some cases that's true.

But it takes time, dedication and hard work to make it a success - don't be fooled into thinking that it's a quick fix.

The first step with social media is to take a look at the platforms that are going to work best for you. 

If you're a local shop, maybe you want to look at a community platforms like Twitter so you can join in with conversations with other businesses in the area and have more direct involvement with customers. 

Facebook tends to be best for people who have ongoing relationships with a company, perhaps if you have members who want to communicate with each other, you can set up a Facebook page where they can speak to each other and to you.

For companies who are more B2B focused, Linked In can often be a useful tool. It's got more an air of professionalism than most platforms and can really help with things like recruitment and sales.

Instagram is definitely the go-to platform for anything visual, so if you're a photographer or run a restaurant, Instagram can be fantastic.

Once you've worked out the best places for you to promote your business, you then need to think about what, when and how you should be posting. 

You need to establish a "voice" for the business, so you know you won't cross any lines or sound odd. 

For example, a plumber probably wants to sound personable, without sounding unprofessional, whereas a lawyer probably wants to come across a little more authoritative.

Getting that balance right means that your social media accounts reflect the personality of the business.

Once your "voice" has been established, you'll need to start posting. 

It can be a bit daunting finding things to post about, so sometimes it can help to create a bank of social media posts which you can cycle through if nothing particularly noteworthy has happened recently.

Another good way to generate content is to get involved. 

Retweet and reply to other peoples' posts that you think will be interesting or useful to your customers. Don't be afraid to start conversations.

The more you get involved, the more content you are creating, and the more visibility you have.

Remember: These accounts are for your business, not your personal life. 

I'd definitely avoid personal or controversial issues and keep things focused on the business and the people in it. 

It's a tricky tightrope, but so long as what you're writing isn't going to be offensive to anyone, it's the right voice and it links in with your business, then you should be alright. 

Even if you're posting about what you and the team are up to in general, instead of being strictly corporate.

So, for example, it might be ok to post about bringing in cake for the team to celebrate Coventry City's win at the weekend.

But it's really not ok to post trash talk about Villa.


SEO Success

Successful SEO is usually a combination of a lot of the different elements we've gone through in this guide, but it's really important that you remember that the internet is only one element of marketing your business. 

We would never suggest that you neglect other, more traditional marketing methods such as print, radio and good old fashioned networking, as every business has unique needs for their particular customers.

Using your website as a marketing tool could bring you lots more visitors, customers, leads and sales.

So whatever you do to improve your rankings, make sure you use services like Google Analytics so that you know your time and energy is actually bringing you value.

I hope that this guide has helped you understand a little more about SEO and how it all works, and given you some ideas on how you plan to market your website going forward.

And if you're looking for a digital agency who can help you with SEO for your project, get in touch - we'd love to hear from you!

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Emma Williams

Digital Marketing Manager