SEO stands for search engine optimization, which is the art and science of ranking high in search engines like Google in order to get traffic to your site.
If you are new to online marketing, then you may think that SEO is incredibly complicated.
However, it definitely doesn’t need to be. You only need to keep in mind a few timeless principles that can help guide your decisions.
Here are 10 core SEO principles that you should follow at all times.
1. Follow the rules, always
It is incredibly important to follow the rules when trying to boost your site’s performance in search.
Using abusive SEO tactics is very likely to get you into trouble. This includes paying people to link to you, using tools to build links, stuffing keywords in your text, publishing automatically generated content, etc.
If you are doing bad things in order to help your site rank, then it is highly likely that Google will find out about it and give you a manual or algorithmic penalty.
The consequences of this can be devastating and literally remove all of the Google traffic from your site overnight.
I have personal experience with this from my early days of building websites.
One site that I owned many years ago was getting up to a million visits per month. The reason it was ranked so high was that I was building links to the site using automated tools and services.
This was against Google’s guidelines, but it was still a fairly common practice in SEO at the time because it worked incredibly well.
But one day in 2012, I woke up to find out that the traffic to the site had dropped by 90% overnight. This was caused by the infamous Penguin update which penalized bad links and permanently changed the landscape of the web.
I ended up abandoning this site having learned an important lesson: Follow the rules at all times.
This was actually a blessing in disguise because I started a new site that followed the rules 100% and focused on what really matters: writing high-quality content on a website that is incredibly useful for readers. The new site became much more successful.
If you are wondering about what “the rules” are, then you should read Google’s official webmaster guidelines about abusive SEO practices. Here’s a relevant quote from the guidelines that can help you determine if what you’re doing is good or bad:
“Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee.”
If you play by the rules and focus on doing what’s best for your users then you should never have a problem with any sort of penalty. Your site will then rank purely based on merit, which is what both Google and users want.
2. Include the words and phrases that people search for in your articles
There are many incredibly good bloggers that surprisingly get almost no traffic from search engines.
The most common reason for this is that they don’t consider which words and phrases people use when looking for their topics in search.
Instead of optimizing their articles for these words and phrases (also called keywords), these types of bloggers often use fancy or clever titles that don’t clearly convey what the topics are about.
If you want search traffic, then you should make sure that your articles include the words and phrases that people are actually typing into the search engines.
You can do that using various different keyword tools, which tell you how many people are searching for different words and phrases each month.
Although Google has a free keyword tool called Google Keyword Planner, this one is very limited unless if you are buying a lot of Google ads.
When you’ve found your keywords, then you need to include them in certain places in your article editor — most importantly the title, but also the description, text and even the URL.
When you type something into a search engine, the listing shows the title, URL and description that you set, or it picks a useful phrase from the article to show as the description.
Don’t try to optimize too much though, since that can harm your rankings. Just make sure that the title (most important), description, text and even the URL clearly convey what the topic is about and include some variation of the keywords in a natural way.
If it’s clear to a human what the article is about from reading the title, then Google should understand it as well.
3. Create the best content available that answers people’s search queries effectively
Put yourself in Google’s shoes for a minute.
What is it that Google is trying to do when it is ranking the search results?
The simple answer is that Google is trying to find the piece of content that best answers the search query that the person typed in. It wants to rank the best answer no. 1, the second best answer no. 2, etc.
So if someone types in a phrase like “is peanut butter good for you” then Google wants to find the single best article available on the topic.
For this reason, it is simply obvious that the quality of your content is the most important SEO factor, by far.
Google has incredibly sophisticated algorithms and as their AI gets smarter over time, the highest quality content will climb to the top of the search results.
Put yourself in the mindset of someone typing your keywords into Google. What is the best way for you to give them the information they are looking for?
This is also known as search intent. If your articles don’t fulfill the search intent and give people what they are looking for, then they won’t rank well, if at all.
4. Make your text readable and your page scannable
It is important to make sure that everyone who visits your pages can read your content easily.
You should use a clear, readable font and keep the font size large enough so that people can read it easily. I use Open Sans on most of my sites, which is a free font served by Google and looks great at most sizes.
Also make your text black or dark gray, on a white background. Many people hate reading white text on a dark background and will simply leave such sites without even trying.
Although readability is crucial, scannability is just as important and is often overlooked.
Most people who find your site through a search engine are NOT going to read your article from start to finish. Instead, they will scan your article quickly to find their answer.
If people who land on your site see large blocks of text that seem disorganized and confusing, then they will simply hit the back button and then click the next site in the search results. Google will see this and then your rankings will go down.
Here are three very basic tips to improve the scannability of your articles:
- Split your text into paragraphs that are not too long. Avoid large blocks of text.
- Use subheadings (h2 and sometimes h3) to split your article into sections.
- Include ordered and unordered lists when applicable.
Then there are more advanced things you can do, like adding photos or videos, having short sentences at the start of the introduction or even adding “bottom line” boxes at the end of chapters like I do.
5. Ensure that your site works perfectly on mobile
Just a few years ago, most people were visiting websites on a computer.
Today, more than half of people use a smartphone to browse the web. About 10% of visitors use a tablet.
For this reason, it is crucial that your site works effectively on all the devices that people use to browse the web.
Most modern WordPress themes are responsive, meaning that they automatically adapt to the size of the screen. So this shouldn’t be an issue if you are using any of the more common modern themes.
In addition, you should enter your site and your most visited pages into Google’s Mobile-Friendly tool. This will tell you if there are any issues.
But definitely make sure to test your site yourself on different devices, especially your smartphone. Navigate the site and ensure that all of the pages are accessible and easy to read on mobile.
You could even check your site on different browsers, as well as your friends’ computers, phones and tablets to make sure that it also works well on other devices and browsers.
6. Make your site load fast, including on slow connections
Site speed is an official ranking factor in Google.
Having a fast site provides pleasant user experience and makes people more likely to stay on your site and consume your content.
If your site is very slow, then search engine visitors may not even bother waiting for it to load. If the content is not visible after a few seconds then most people will hit the back button and click on the next site in the search results.
Google will see that people clicked on your site, only to return to the search results page a few seconds later and click on the next site. This is a severe negative signal to Google that will make your site drop in the rankings.
The loading time of a site is even more important on mobile because many people have bad mobile connections and are unable or unwilling to visit sites that are very heavy and take a long time to become readable.
If you have a fast connection where you live then you may wrongly think that your site is fast. It could actually be horrible to load for people on slower connections.
7. Make your site look appealing for search engine visitors
When people search for something on Google, they scan the search results very quickly before deciding which site to click on.
The percentage of people who click on your site after seeing it in the search results is called click-through-rate (CTR). Many SEO professionals believe that this is a ranking factor.
When your site is ranking in a search engine, it is really competing with the other sites for that click. The person may only scan the search listing for your site for a fraction of a second before making a decision.
For this reason, you need to do everything you can to make sure that your listing looks as appealing as possible.
There are several ways to do this:
- Title: Have a title that sounds interesting and clearly conveys that it has the content the searcher is looking for.
- Description: The description should explain to the reader what the article is about.
- Site name: Your site name should preferably be relevant to the topics you write about. If your article is about fitness but your site name is about dog food, then people probably won’t click on it.
- URL: Using descriptive URLs can help provide another signal to searchers.
- Date: Google usually shows the date of the article and many people look at this before clicking. If your article is very old, consider updating and improving it and refreshing the date.
Make sure that you are doing this as honestly and naturally as possible (see principle #1). Clickbait or keyword stuffing won’t work and are more likely to harm your rankings.
8. Make sure that search engine bots can see and understand your site
Search engines learn about your content by using bots that “crawl” your site. As in, the bots visit your site regularly and click on all the links to find the different pages.
If your site is inaccessible to these bots, then the search engines won’t know what pages you have or what they are about. This means that your site will not rank or get any significant traffic from search engines.
Wait for a few days or a week, then log back in and check all the reports — if there are issues accessing or crawling your site, then you will find them there.
The most common reasons why a site would be inaccessible are:
- Blocked by the robots.txt file, which tells Google not to crawl your site.
- Blocked by the noindex directive, which tells Google not to show your site in search.
It is worth spending a few minutes to learn about robots.txt and the noindex directive to ensure that you won’t have problems with them in the future.
It’s also a good idea to check the Google Search Console regularly to see if there are any new issues. They will also let you know if they find any security or mobile usability issues, among others.
Although Bing and Yahoo don’t drive nearly as much traffic as Google, it is useful to also submit your site to Bing and Yahoo Webmaster Tools.
9. Use analytics tools to find out what’s working
You need to be aware of how people are finding and using your site.
The free tool Google Analytics can show you detailed data about your site and its visitors.
You simply create an account with Google Analytics, add your site, then add their code snippet to your site.
Some important stats for SEO include your most visited pages, the keywords that people use to find your site in search, site speed and how long people stay on each page.
There are many different analytics tools available, but I recommend Google Analytics because it is fast, free and incredibly effective.
Try not to fall into the trap of getting addicted to Google Analytics and checking it multiple times per day like I often do. Once per day is more than enough.
10. Build a good reputation as a trustworthy and authoritative source
If you want your site to rank well for competitive keywords, then you should make an effort to establish it as an “authority” site.
In other words, your site should be considered an authority on the topics that you write about. Then people will naturally want to link to your site and refer to it online.
Controversial content can help you gain links, but it may have negative long-term effects if it ends up harming your reputation.
Google even looks at mentions of your site on other sites on the web. If a lot of people are saying negative things then it can affect your ranking potential.
The Google quality rater guidelines emphasize something called E-A-T, or Expertise-Authority-Trustworthiness.
Learning about this concept is very important, especially if your article is about health or finance.
At the end of the day, what is most important is producing high-quality content and having a great website with incredible user experience.
If what you are doing is helping to make the internet a better place, then you should get rewarded for that eventually.
If you are ever in doubt whether what you are doing is good or bad, then use the simple principles outlined above to guide your decisions and help you make the right choices.