The Ultimate Guide to SEO for Your Business
“Build it and they will come” may have worked in Field of Dreams, but the motto won’t work when it comes to your digital marketing strategy. Simply building a website and then expecting the traffic and leads to pour in is a path to disappointment.
Because if you want to be found online, you have to think about Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Take a moment, and it’s not hard to see why this matters so much.
Imagine you’re looking for a new dry cleaning service near your home. What’s the first thing you do?
Unless you’re currently walking down the street and looking at the storefronts, we’re willing to bet your first step is to Google “dry cleaning near me.”
Search engines are how customers find and assess the companies they do business with. In fact, 63,000 Google searches are made globally every second.
So in order to grow your business and find new leads, first you build it, then you plan your SEO strategy… and then they’ll come.
What is SEO?
Moz, an SEO software company, offers the following definition of SEO:
“SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.”
There are three core parts of this definition, emphasized in italics. Let’s break each part down:
- Quantity: SEO should help increase the number of people coming to your website by making it discoverable and improving your ranking. The more traffic you draw to your website, the more leads you can generate… So long as the right people are coming to your website.
- Quality: Simply drawing ever bigger crowds to your website isn’t helpful unless the people who are landing on your page are actually interested in purchasing your product or service. Think of it this way: if you opened a butcher’s shop, you would not advertise your business in Vegetarian Monthly Magazine. The goal of SEO is to make sure when someone enters a search term that relates to your business, they can find you—and to make sure you’re not inadvertently showing up in results that don’t relate to you.
- Organic Search Engine Results: In contrast to Search Engine Marketing (SEM), SEO refers to traffic that is generated organically—that is, without using paid ads.
How do search engines work?
To understand SEO strategy it’s important to have a basic understanding of how search engines work.
Search engines, such as Google, use bots to “crawl” the internet. They read the pages they find, and add them to their index. Google describes their index as “like a library, except it contains more info than in all the world’s libraries put together.”
When you enter a search term onto a search engine, it takes a fraction of a second for the search engine to return results to you. The speed and accuracy of search results depend on the search engine’s algorithms. To help deliver the most useful results to you, search engines will rank content based on various criteria.
For Google, this includes factors such as:
- Relevance (how well does the website meet the search criteria?)
- Quality (is the website a reliable source of information?)
- Usability (how functional is the website?)
Many people who only have a passing familiarity with SEO will be aware of keywords. Keywords are a major factor in optimizing your website, but they’re certainly not the be-all and end-all. As you can tell from the factors that inform Google’s algorithms, keywords alone will not be enough to get your website ranking highly.
Let’s look at the different types of SEO and how they can help Google find your content, understand how to index you, and rank you highly within their algorithms.
What is on-page SEO?
On-page SEO refers to the strategies used to optimize your webpages so that search engines are able to identify your website and add them to their indexes.
There are a number of steps you can take to improve your on-site SEO:
Keywords in SEO basically means the words that users are entering into the search engine when they are looking for content. You want to make sure that your website uses the terms that users are actually searching for on your page so that your business appears in their search results.
Imagine this scenario: you open a French themed bakery in Toronto. In keeping with your theme, you only refer to your bakery as a “boulangerie and patisserie” on your website.
However, if the search term that most people are using when they want to find the best spot for croissants in the city is “French bakery in Toronto” you’re going to miss out on generating traffic for your website.
The keywords you decide to use will have a direct impact on:
- How many people discover your business through organic search
- The quantity and quality of the traffic you attract
In order to determine your keyword strategy, an SEO expert will help you with keyword research—a process of determining what search terms your target customers are actually using.
As we saw above, Google, and other search engines, put a high premium on quality content. It is important for a search engine to direct users to content that is reliable and trustworthy; this is what keeps a user coming back to a search engine.
There are reportedly hundreds of factors that go into determining a webpage’s ranking, but Google offers the following insight on what factors most highly in their determination of a website’s quality:
- The purpose of the page
- E – A – T (Expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness)
- Main content quality and length
- Website information and reputation
It’s important not to use tactics that will cause search engines to identify your website as low-quality or spam. Google’s webmaster guidelines identify factors that can lead to Google treating your site as low quality.
It’s best practice to include your target keywords in your URL.
Let’s look at an example. I google “Fall Women’s Jackets.”
The #1 organic search result is from Old Navy. The URL I land on?
It almost precisely matches the search term I entered.
When I head to page 10 of the results (which, let’s be real, I would never usually bother clicking on) I find an article from PopSugar headed “18 Fall Jackets From Amazon That Are Too Stylish and Warm to Resist for October.”
The URL for this article is as follows:
Now it’s likely that Popsugar were trying to target the long tail keyword “Best jackets for women from Amazon”… But that just goes to illustrate the importance of knowing what keywords you’re targeting and then building that into your page.
One thing to definitely make sure is that your URLs are always readable. What you really want to avoid (from page 19 of my search results) is a URL that looks like this:
This string of alphanumerics can’t be read by humans and it can’t be read by search engines either.
Unlike humans, search engine bots can’t see images—so it’s important not to bury your keywords or content in images. When you do use images make sure you include alt-text, to let the bots know what they’re looking at.
For example, this image appears on the website of one of our clients, HealthHub:
When you look at the code, you can see that the image has been accurately described in the alt text:
Using alt text in this way can optimize your website so that search engines can more accurately index your content. Alt text is also a key component of making your website more accessible for visitors who use screen readers.
Meta tags and titles are pieces of code that you build into your website that help search engines understand who you are and what you offer. There are many different types of meta tags but one of the most important for your SEO is your meta title.
This is how Sparked Digital shows up when you search for us on Google. That heading (“Sparked Digital | Toronto Digital Marketing Agency”) comes directly from the meta title we used in our code.
The text below (“We’re a full service digital marketing agency”) is pulled from our meta description. This is another meta tag that you can use to tell search engines how to display information about you (although according to Google, meta descriptions don’t directly impact ranking).
This is prime marketing real estate. In order to use meta tags to their best advantage, make sure you:
- Create a unique and descriptive title tag and meta description for each page
- Avoid generic titles and descriptions
- Keep your titles and descriptions pithy—search engines will cut off overly wordy text
- Include target keywords if it makes sense to do so
- Think about your audience—why should they choose to click on your link?
- Avoid gimmicky or click bait titles and descriptions
What is off page/ technical SEO?
On page SEO is just one half of the optimization equation. We learned earlier that Google’s rankings factor in the usability of your website: the experience that visitors have when browsing. Usability is often impacted by technical or off-page factors.
Technical SEO is the process of improving the performance of your website so that it ranks more highly.
Here are some of the top technical SEO factors that can improve your website’s performance:
Fast site speed
Web visitors are notoriously impatient with slow loading websites—and so is Google. If you have a slow site, you’re unlikely to rank well on search engines.
If you’re not sure what your site speed is there are numerous tools that you can use to check including PageSpeed Insights from Google.
Some common fixes for slow site speed include:
- Compressing large files
- Optimizing code
- Reducing redirects
- Using browser caching so return visitors don’t have to reload your entire site
- Making sure images are not overly large and are compressed for web
- Improving your server response time
Easy for robots to read
You want to make sure search engines can easily find important information about your website. Common ways to improve your readability include:
- Having a well-ordered internal link hierarchy which makes it clear which pages are the most important
- Using a robots.txt file—this is like handing the robots a map to your website
- Using canonicalization to avoid duplicate content
Limited dead links
Know that feeling when you’re browsing a website and then you suddenly hit a page with a message telling you that the content you’re looking for doesn’t exist?
Don’t you hate that?
Dead links occur when content changes on your website but other pages continue to link to it. Not only is it frustrating for your visitors, it will not impress the search engine bots when they stumble across it either.
There are various tools you can use to identify dead links: once you’ve found them you can decide where you need to put in redirects and fixing any links that aren’t working due to typos or other similar errors.
Optimized for mobile
Google cares about the experience that your visitors have when they land on your website. More than 50% of web traffic comes from people browsing on mobile devices—which means your website needs to be responsive and work well on cell phones and tablets. This is especially important as Google now uses mobile-first indexing, which means they use how well your site performs on mobile devices as the basis for their ranking.
What is local SEO?
As mentioned earlier, most people when they’re looking for a service or business will search “coffee shop near me” or “accounting firm Toronto.”
Local SEO aims to make sure you show up in relevant local searches so that the right people can find your business. This can involve many of the same steps we’ve already seen (such as optimizing for local keywords, optimizing both your on page and off page SEO).
Perhaps one of the most important factors when targeting local SEO, is to use tools such as Google My Business, Bing Places, and Apple Maps Connect to claim your business listing. This allows you to categorize your business, add details such as your phone number, and link to your website. You can also list your opening hours and detail your service offerings.
What is SEO blogging?
SEO blogging or SEO content is the process of using your company blog specifically to generate traffic for your website.
SEO blogging can be an effective way of improving your SEO ranking. Here’s why:
- It allows you to add new content regularly to your website, which search engines value
- It allows you to create keyword targeted content, directly speaking to your customers’ questions
- It can be part of strategy of building your authority and quality scores with search engines (search engines value long-form, comprehensive, and widely-linked content)
Many of the same principles we’ve already covered apply to SEO blogging. Effective SEO blogging requires applying core SEO principles and building a strategy. These steps will include both on-page and off-page elements, including keyword research and establishing a robust architecture for your blog posts.
SEO blogging is where copywriting and SEO comes together. If you’re planning on working with an external partner to put your SEO blogging strategy in place, make sure you look for agencies where they have expertise in both domains.
What is the importance of SEO?
We’ve spent a lot of time giving you an overview of what SEO is. Hopefully, you’ve got a sense now of just how big a role SEO plays in driving traffic to your website. Let’s recap the key benefits of SEO.
- Creating a user-friendly website: Pursuing a SEO strategy will improve the usability and accessibility of your website. This will not only improve your search engine rankings; it will also give your customers a better experience. This is critical, as evidence shows that poorly designed or functioning websites can deter customers from your business.
- Generating high quality traffic: To grow your business, you need the right people to find you. Even with a great product or service, it’s a challenge to attract the folks who are already looking for companies like yours without an SEO strategy. SEO is a targeted process to draw traffic to your website (or promote your physical location).
- Building credibility and awareness: Improving your ranking gives you immediate credibility. After all, Google is implicitly telling people that your website is worth visiting on this topic; that your website won’t waste their time. But the strategies you use as part of your SEO strategy, such as UX design and SEO blogging, will also build awareness of your brand and enhance your credibility. Providing useful content that helps solve people’s problems or answers their questions is a great way to position yourself as a brand that customers know, like, and trust.
- Return on Investment: While SEO does often require some investment, of time and/or money, the returns can be impressive. After all, attracting the right clients more of the right customers to your website is key to growing your sales. Also, with SEO it’s easy to assess whether your efforts are bearing fruit or not, through studying your analytics.
- Conversions: When the right people are finding you, your conversion rates should rise. Because SEO is about generating high quality traffic, you are looking for less bounce rates, people to engage with your content more, and to see that engagement translate into conversions. If you’re not seeing your numbers move, it may be time to evaluate and re-optimize.
SEO has many facets and it can be hard to know where to start. Here’s our checklist on how to assess your SEO programs:
✔ Keyword ranking: Start with the basics. How visible are you on Google? You can run some basic checks just by running a few search terms yourself, but if you want a more comprehensive picture you’ll probably want to use an SEO tool such as Ahrefs or SEMRush.
✔ Dig into Google Analytics: Google Analytics provides a wealth of data on the traffic coming to your website. Dive into this info to get a clearer picture of whether people are clicking through to your website and how they’re finding you.
✔ Track your site metrics: Understand how people are behaving on your site. Key metrics to look at include:
- Conversion rates
- Bounce rates
✔ Check your on-page SEO: Audit your current on page SEO. Have you:
- Researched target keywords and embedded them into your website?
- Developed high-quality optimized content?
- Made sure you use short, readable URLs?
- Optimized your images for the web, including using alt-text?
- Used meta tags and descriptions for key pages?
✔ Check your off-page SEO: Identify any technical issues that may be harming your ranking. Have you:
- Checked your site speed?
- Made sure your site is easy for robots to crawl? (e.g. created a robots.txt file, organized your site architecture?)
- Removed or redirected any dead links?
- Checked how well your website works on mobile?
Once you have a clear handle on where there are gaps in your SEO programs, you can begin implementing the techniques we’ve shared in this guide and become a SEO boss. 💪💪💪
How to choose the right SEO agency
Throughout this guide, we’ve shared SEO best practices. If you decide to work with an SEO agency, you should look for people who are using strategies like these—what is sometimes known as “white hat SEO.”
Unfortunately some agencies engage in shady practices, or “black hat SEO.” These are tactics that go against search engines’ guidelines, don’t serve your customers, and could result in you being penalized by the search engines.
Here’s some things to look out for when choosing an SEO agency:
- Do they have a defined process that you feel confident will meet your goals?
- Will you be working with SEO specialists? Do they have technical capabilities and access to experienced content writers?
- Can they share testimonials or references from previous clients?
- Can they point to the ROI they have generated for previous clients?
- Do they communicate clearly and answer your questions?
- Are they realistic about the results you can expect?
And make sure you steer clear of agencies who raise red flags, including:
🚩 They promise to boost you to the top of Google in record time (SEO isn’t magic, and it can take time to gain results)
🚩 They refuse to share their process with you or suggest tactics such as keyword stuffing, cloaking, or buying backlinks (which are all black hat SEO techniques)
🚩 They don’t have any real customer testimonials and cannot put you in contact with previous clients
🚩 They pressure you to sign on for a long-term contract
🚩 They have limited staff and are cagey about their expertise
SEO can seem mystifying and the promises of some SEO “experts” can sound too good to be true. But when you work with a reputable SEO agency, you’ll discover that while there are many factors to SEO, improving your visibility is about following clear processes, measuring results, and revising your strategy based on data. Nothing magical, and nothing that you can’t understand when you have the right partner by your side.
At Sparked, we have a small but talented team of experts who will never talk down to you and will always be transparent about our work and the results we deliver. Want to chat about how we can support your SEO efforts? Contact us and one of our friendly team members will be in touch soon.