What is Search Engine Optimisation...and Why Do Startups Need to Know About It?

In the first of our guest posts, we welcome Joe Williams of Tribe SEO. He’s an SEO lecturer with the Digital Marketing Institute - and is from Swansea!

Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO, is the practice of getting your website to appear at or near the top of the list of results in search engines (primarily Google, which is by far the most popular search engine).

Obviously, your site won't appear at the top for unrelated or tenuously related terms: e.g. if you blog about your location-independent lifestyle, you might be at the top of Google for "get paid to travel the world" but not for "buy travel mugs" – you don't sell travel mugs.

So, with SEO, you're aiming to get your site to rank highly for relevant keywords, to do with your website's topic. Those might include:

  • Navigational keywords – including your brand name, your real name or your website’s URL. The idea is that a searcher has a destination in mind and they are using a search engine to navigate towards it.
  • Transactional keywords – these are the products and services you wish to promote. Perhaps it’s an online product or an online course?
  • Informational keywords – e.g. if your website is about how to build a strong Facebook following, you might rank for "get more engagement on a Facebook page".

The keywords you rank for probably won't include really broad, popular keywords, or ones that are brand names (e.g. your website is very unlikely to appear on the first page of search engine results for the word "Facebook" alone).

It's probably obvious why SEO matters for your website: if it ranks for highly relevant keywords, you'll have a constant stream of new readers who've been searching for information on those exact topics. Hopefully, they'll stick around, read more posts, and even buy something from you.

Why Can't You Just Write Great Content?

Well, you can and should write great content: readers want well-written, helpful pages that let them achieve something or think about something in a new way. And, of course, search engines want to give readers what they want!

But just writing great content isn't enough.

There's been the idea around on the internet for more than a decade that "if you build it, they will come": if you just focus on writing the best posts you can, readers will find your site through word of mouth. But this has never really worked.

You need to optimise your content so it's easy for search engines to understand (and easy for readers to engage with). Plus, you need to help Google recognise that your site is well-regarded ... which we'll come onto in a moment.

Three Types of SEO: On-Page, Off-Page and Technical

There are three key types of SEO, some of which are easier to influence than others. I’ll go through each of them briefly and suggest one key way to get started.

On-Page SEO: Create Relevant Content

“On-page” SEO includes everything you do with your webpages, such as crafting the title tag and meta description, using subheadings to structure your content, and so on. The great thing about this type of SEO is that it’s fully in your control, and it’s not particularly technical: ideal if you’re good with words but find the techy side of things tricky.

Key tip: Make sure you've written a title that will make your post sound enticing: it needs to engage readers and it can be different to the main heading of the post. Include keywords, but not at the expense of readability. You can check the length of your title using the Google SERP Generator tool to see how it'll display in Google (very long titles get cut off).

Technical SEO: Make Pages Crawlable

Like on-page SEO, technical SEO takes place on your own website. It’s all about making it easy for Google to “crawl” your site, so your pages can be indexed and then found through searches. It includes things like making sure your pages load quickly and ensuring that your site is secure.

Key tip: Register for Google Search Console, which is free. (It used to be called Google Webmaster Tools.) Create and submit an XML sitemap: if you're using WordPress, the Yoast SEO plugin is an easy way to do this (the plugin also helps with on-page SEO.) Wait a few weeks so that Google Search Console can build up data about your site, then review any errors and warnings that Google flags up: fix these if at all possible.

Off-Page SEO: Become an Authority

“Off-page” SEO is about all the things you do, or encourage, elsewhere on the web to boost your own site’s rankings. This includes link building, of course – getting other sites to link to yours – but also covers things like social media attention.

Key tip: Write guest posts for high-quality, relevant blogs in your industry. Don't do this just to get a backlink: building relationships with other bloggers is important too (bonus marks for replying to comments!), plus you'll want to focus on sites that are as relevant as possible to yours. When you publish content on sites that have the type of audience you'd like to attract to your site, that's useful a signal to Google that'll help you build your site's reputation.

SEO doesn't need to be scary, complicated or very time-consuming. By taking a few small actions, you can make a big difference to your website's position in search engines. Pick one thing to try today.