A beginner's explanation of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

26 Nov 2018

Adam Šapić, digital marketing strategist, simplifies SEO and shares some top tips on improving website performance

Table of Contents

  1. What is SEO?
  2. Why is SEO important?
  3. The internet is expanding!
  4. How does Google work?
  5. What does SEO involve?
  6. Why technical SEO?
  7. Mobile-friendly pages
  8. Page loading speed
  9. Image optimisation using compression
  10. URL structure
  11. Secure websites - HTTPS
  12. Website address versions
  13. SEO best practice
  14. Conclusion

 

What is SEO? Why it’s important and what you can do to improve the technical performance of your website

I recently delivered a presentation about SEO for the National Association of Wedding Professionals. At the start, I asked attendees the following questions:

  • How many know what SEO is?
  • How many are optimising on a monthly basis?
  • How many think their SEO is working?

Just under half the room put their hands up for number 1, roughly 20% for number 2 and only a couple of hands for 3. SEO has been around since the 1990s, yet a lot of small businesses still do not fully understand how this powerful method of digital marketing can bring tremendous benefits.

Let’s start off with the basics.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. It’s the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website from organic Search Engine Result Pages which are called SERPs in the industry. The end goal is to increase conversions. 

Conversions are any action you define that converts a website visitor into an engaged prospect or customer. Phone number clicks, contact form completions and brochure downloads are all common examples of conversions online.

When I say organic, that means your business is ranking in SERPs without you paying for it like you would for an advert. Look at the SERP below for ‘London wedding photographers’, I’ve highlighted the different elements. You can have up to 4 adverts, 3 places on the local map pack and 10 organic results per page on Google by default.

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Naturally, your competitors are also after that coveted position on page 1. Why? Countless studies have shown that the most clicks on Google are received by the results ranking on page 1. More high-quality clicks increase the likelihood of more conversions. This is why SEO can feel more like a race.

In order to rank on page one, you have to earn it. Remember, Google’s mission is ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. That means the engine is always aiming to serve the most relevant content to users. You have to earn the trust of Google and in return, Google may reward you with clicks.

In this article, we are going to focus on Google because it still dominates the search engine market. 

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Why is SEO important?

Let’s take a look at some search queries related to the wedding industry.

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Here you can see the average number of times users searched for a keyword per month in the UK. Note the total of 170K searches for queries related to wedding photography and 120K for bridal shops. That’s a phenomenal amount of traffic each month.

This is why SEO is important. It’s simply too big for many industries to ignore. If you don’t join the SEO race, you leave the way open for competitors. The longer you leave it, the more of a head start your competitors will have and vice versa.

The internet is expanding!

Internet usage in the UK has exploded in the last 10 years thanks to the rise of social media and smartphones. 

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Here’s an insight on how rapid this expansion is. Every time you create a Facebook post, you are creating a new web page. Look at the URL below.

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Can you imagine how much Facebook alone is expanding every second? Or every day? That’s a lot of content. This presents ever growing challenges for search engines which I will explore in the next paragraph. Before I do that, let’s explore the basics of how Google works.

How does Google work?

Websites are essentially collections of web pages. However, pages - not websites - are the DNA of the internet. Think of them like grains of sand piling up and expanding the beach.

Google’s activity can be broken down into three key areas:

1. Crawling – Google uses a crawler, a piece of software that crawls through web pages NOT websites. It uses a list of URLs from previous crawls and sitemaps provided by website owners. Google also finds new pages by following the links on existing web pages. 

2. Indexing – Once new pages are found, they are indexed according to a range of criteria such as what keywords each page uses, how fresh they are, industry categories and location.

3. Serving – When a user searches for a particular query like ‘bridal shops Birmingham’, Google then sorts through its index and serves the most useful and relevant results in a split second. This is done using an algorithm, a complex set of mathematical rules and calculations that use more than 10,000 factors to decide how relevant a web page is for each search query. 

It’s impractical for Google to show you all the results in its index. Let’s face it, do you really go through at least five pages of results when searching for a product or service on Google? This I why the algorithm exists and where the very essence of SEO lies. You can find out more about how Google Search works here.

Can you see now how a rapidly expanding internet presents ever growing challenges for search engines? The more content, the larger the index, the more Google has to consider when serving. Search engines like Google are constantly developing their algorithms to cope with the growth of the digital ecosphere and this, in turn, changes how SEO is carried out. 

What does SEO involve?

SEO can be broken down into three key columns.

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On-page SEO refers to optimising the front-end elements on each web page that you directly control. These are things that can be seen by your website visitors such as text, titles and headers. Off-page SEO looks at elements that are not on your website but have a direct effect such as links from other websites. Technical SEO refers to changing the back-end elements that are usually not seen by your website visitors but directly influence their browsing experience. 

Why technical SEO?

Making adjustments to the mechanics of your website to increase performance is a big deal. Google wants to serve web pages that are high quality in content and technical performance such as fast page loading speeds.

Usually, technical SEO takes less time than ongoing optimisations on and off page. However, the small changes you implement can make a big difference later on. Without further ado, let’s dive into some relatively simple technical recommendations that you can use to improve the performance of your website.

DISCLAIMER: If you don’t know what you’re doing, consult your web developer or a suitable professional otherwise you can seriously break your website and search rankings. The following are general recommendations you can use as a guideline when assessing your bespoke website requirements. 

Mobile-friendly pages

In the UK, people mostly use mobile devices to access the internet. In one survey by Statista, 48% of respondents said they use a smartphone compared to 24% using a laptop. 

You can easily find out how your visitors access your site using Google Analytics. Use the ‘Mobile’ report underneath the ‘Audience’ tab. In the example below, I can see most of the traffic is coming from desktop by a marginal amount, however, most of the conversions are occurring on mobile.

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This highlights why I should make sure all my pages within my website function perfectly on mobile devices. A simple way to test your pages is by using Google’s mobile-friendly tool.

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If your pages aren’t mobile-friendly, Google will list recommendations to fix all issues. You most likely will need to liaise with your web developer.

Chances are your website is already mobile responsive, meaning the content automatically repositions and adjusts according to what device is being used. However, that doesn’t mean your pages are completely mobile-friendly so it’s best to check. 

It’s also worth noting that just because Google says your website is mobile-friendly doesn’t mean it’s user-friendly. So manually test all functions on your website on different mobile devices to ensure the navigation experience is seamless.

If you would like to know more about the principles of mobile site design, take a look at Google’s resource.

Page loading speed

We are living in an age of convenience. We expect to access information quickly. Therefore, your website should load as quickly as possible to prevent users from leaving your site before they’ve had a chance to engage with your pages.

According to Google, 70% of mobile network connections globally will occur at 3G or slower speeds through 2020. One second of extra loading time could reduce your mobile conversions by 20%. Therefore, it’s important to improve the loading speed of your pages.

Use Google’s mobile speed tool to test how fast your web pages are loading on a 3G connection. You can ask Google to email you a detailed report.

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Again, Google will recommend improvements and provide links for explanations. You will need to liaise with your web developer when discussing Google’s recommendations. Don’t forget, you can always run a speed test using your competitors’ pages for comparative purposes.

Google have documented the average loading speed per industry below. It’s interesting to note that not one single industry has yet to achieve the recommended average. This is a perfect opportunity to invest in your site and get ahead of your competition.

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Another handy speed testing tool is GT Metrix. Like Google, it gives you a breakdown of recommended improvements and explanations of everything.

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When searching, be sure to change your location to London, UK underneath the URL field. Be sure to save a test as a benchmark before you make changes so you can measure how much your website speed improved.

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BONUS TIP – If you’re using WordPress, you can use the above speed testing tools to find out if any of your plugins are slowing your site down. Simply take a benchmark, deactivate your plugin and then re-test. You will then need to reactivate the plugin before moving on to the next one. If your plugins are slowing your site down and they are not really crucial, consider deleting them.

Image optimisation using compression

Images take up memory. The more memory used, the longer it will take to load your page. The solution is compression. Uploading your images using compression tools like Compressor.io or TinyPNG will reduce the amount of memory used. 

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The image on the left is the original, while the image on the right has been compressed by 36%. As you can see, the quality has hardly changed. Naturally, if you heavily compress an image, it will reduce the quality. You need to strike a balance between compression and image quality so test different options and tools.

URL structure

A concise URL structure is integral for search engines and users to find information effectively, much like getting from A to B. As your website changes, so will your URL structure. It’s important to keep your structure organised and tidy to avoid navigation pitfalls. 

301 redirects

Imagine you stock a Winchester wedding dress in your Opulent collection under this URL: mybridalshop.co.uk/opulent/winchester.

But the dress becomes discontinued, what do you do with the URL? Don’t delete it. Imagine all the SEO juice that URL has generated during its existence. By deleting the URL, you are throwing away a part of your website performance. The solution is to use a 301 redirect. 

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This essentially redirects all the SEO juice from one URL to another. But... do not redirect to an irrelevant page. Using the example above, I would redirect the discontinued Winchester dress to another gown in the same collection such as the Worcester: mybridalshop.co.uk/opulent/worcester

That way, the SEO juice from the Winchester dress passes on and benefits other relevant products. Remember to change the links on all your other pages that point to the redirected URL. Your links should always point to their final destination.

If using WordPress, you can serve 301s using a plugin. I would recommend you serve 301s on the server. You can do this yourself if your hosting uses cPanel but remember this can break your site if you aren’t sure. Most shared hosting providers have tutorials or you can contact their support teams.

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If your site is using a Linux server running Apache, then serve via the .htaccess file. This method will require your web developer, it’s probably worth having a chat with them about the other ways of serving a 301.

404 response code

I’m sure you’ve seen the following error message when navigating a site.

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A 404 error means content used to exist on that page but temporarily cannot be found. In a nutshell, 404s can be a brick wall if there are traffic and links pointing to the missing URL. Imagine you are searching for a product or service and then you hit a 404. Chances are you are going to exit the site. 

You want to minimise the likelihood of visitors exiting without converting so dealing with 404s is an important task. You can identify 404s using the crawl errors report in Google Search Console

When you have identified all 404s, find out if the URL is receiving traffic (use Google Analytics) and has links pointing to it (check other pages). If it does, consider using a 301 redirect to another relevant URL thus plugging the gap. If the 404 page has naturally become redundant and a 301 redirect is not ideal, then consider serving a 410. For example, you have a page about an accreditation you no longer wish to renew. It is not related to any other pages and thus becomes redundant.

410 response code

410s mean that content on the URL has been permanently deleted. This is the best way to delete redundant URLs. Here is an image to help you understand the difference between 404s and 410s. 

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Two shops close down at the same time. One doesn’t have a notice in the window which may confuse visitors, while the other shop clearly displays a sign saying it has closed down and therefore, visitors know to go elsewhere.

When Google comes across a 404, it will revisit the URL several times to check the content has not been restored. If Google repeatedly finds the content missing when visiting a 404, it will eventually remove the page URL from its index. By using a 410 on redundant pages, you can actually speed up the process of Google removing the web page from its index.

Secure websites - HTTPS

Have you ever noticed those little padlocks next to a URL in your web browser?

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URLs start with HTTP. This is the standard command which defines how data is transmitted on the internet. Think of it like a calling code that is required when requesting information from somewhere. Secure website use HTTPS. The extra ‘S’ stands for secure meaning the connection between your browser and the website is encrypted. This is an important part of protecting personal data that is submitted by website visitors such as completing a contact form or making a payment.

Browsers display a padlock symbol next to secure websites, which use HTTPS at the beginning of their URLs. Google Chrome on desktop even displays ‘Not Secure’ messages next to an unsecured URL.

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Naturally, some users may feel uncomfortable about using unsecured websites. Building trust is a staple of any business development strategy. Therefore, it makes sense to secure your website but it’s best to check with your web developer or hosting provider first. Some old web-based applications may have difficulty with HTTPS addresses. 

It’s also worth noting that migrating to a secured website can create multiple challenges so again, consult a professional before going ahead. There are plenty of articles online on how to secure your website if it is the right direction for your business.

If you have recently secured your website, there are a few things you need to consider from a technical SEO standpoint. Before we go into these recommendations, it’s important you understand the different versions of your website address.

Website address versions

In the eyes of search engines, there are different versions of your website (www. or non-www.)

All websites using HTTP have two versions:

  1. http://weddinginsurancegroup.co.uk/
  2. http://www.weddinginsurancegroup.co.uk/

The same goes for secure sites using HTTPS:

  1. https://weddinginsurancegroup.co.uk/
  2. https://www.weddinginsurancegroup.co.uk/

Google treats HTTP and HTTPS as separate sites.

Add HTTPS versions of your site to Google Search Console

It’s crucial that you add the 4 versions of your website address to Google Search Console as separate properties.

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This ensures you are maximising the use of Search Console. Then it’s important to set your preferred domain version. Google then uses the preferred version for all future crawls and indexing.

You can then group all your properties into one property set to give a limited overview of all website versions. 

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Not all reports are available for property sets, however Google is working to increase the number of reports. Failing to add the different versions and setting a preferred domain in Search Console may result in Google treating the www. and non-www. versions of your website as separate references to separate pages. 

Use a 301 redirect pointing to your preferred website address

Remember that Google treats HTTP and HTTPS addresses as separate sites and the same for www. and non-www. versions? In addition to adding HTTPS versions of your site to Search Console (as detailed above), Google recommends using a 301 redirect on a per URL basis. That means redirecting all your original HTTP pages to the new secured HTTPS versions.

For example:

  • http://www.weddinginsurancegroup.co.uk/photographer-videographer-insurance
  • http://www.weddinginsurancegroup.co.uk/wedding-and-event-planner-insurance

Would need to be redirected to: 

There are sitewide 301 redirects your web developer can use. Again, it’s best discussing the above with your developer so you can weigh up your options.

The simplest way to test the above is by typing a non-preferred version of your website address into your browser. If the URL does not change automatically to the preferred version, that means there are still multiple versions of your site. 

In the eyes of Google, these are duplicated pages which can cause confusion when the search engine is deciding which version to serve to users.

Ensure all internal links point to HTTPS URLs sitewide

Make sure all links inside your website pointing to different pages use HTTPS in their URL not HTTP. This can easily be changed using your content management system or manually by your web developer.

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Ensure all external links to your site you control point to HTTPS URLs

Make sure all links pointing to your website use HTTPS in their URL not HTTP if possible.

You can find out who links to your site using the ‘Links to Your Site’ report in Google Search Console. I’ve used a professional backlink tool which displays the following examples.

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The first link is from a client who I can contact and ask they use the HTTPS version of our website.

The second link is from a directory; I can simply log in and change it myself.

Ensure your XML sitemap includes HTTPS URLs

No doubt your website is using a sitemap. If not, get one. They are integral for SEO.

The SEO plugin Yoast generates a sitemap for you on WordPress.

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Or your developer may have created one manually. 

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Whatever the case, you need to ensure your sitemap only contains HTTPS versions of your URLs. 

Concluding thoughts

As you can see, there is a lot to think about. SEO is not easy for a good reason otherwise everyone would be raking it in online. But done correctly and with patience, it will pay off. 

For example, after implementing a new SEO strategy for the Wedding Insurance Group, the amount of people requesting a quote from the website has increased by nearly 94% over the last 10 months compared with the previous 10 months.

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Once again, it’s important to highlight how easily you can break your website and rankings when carrying out SEO, especially technical adjustments. Therefore, it’s extremely important you talk to your web developer or an SEO professional.

This article is a useful insight into what questions you need to be asking them. If you have any questions about what I’ve written, feel free to contact me through my digital marketing agency UNIMETRICS.

Adam Šapić
Digital Marketing Strategist

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