Author: Written during October 2018 from Johannesburg South Africa by Dave Nilsson, Director of The Converted Click specialist SEO & Search Marketing Consultancy. LinkedIn profile

To engage your target audience, boost online engagement and increase company revenue, you need to rank within the top 3 organic search results. This is a well-known fact which millions of marketers and SEO specialists around the globe compete for on a daily basis, executing planned out marketing strategies which are tied into a solid SEO strategy aimed at boosting rankings and engagement.

But the question we are facing today is simply to do with the exact definition of SEO, how it works and what it takes to dominate those prized organic positions within your niche. *In this article, we will be focusing purely on organic search which is powered by SEO and not paid advertising which is powered by Google or Bings Ads (previously Google AdWords)*. 

AUTHOR NOTE: If you haven’t yet read our article called ‘what does SEO stand for?’ I suggest scanning through it now and then returning here 🙂

Paid VS Organic positions example:

what is SEO

Here are some fast facts highlighting why you need dedicated SEO services:

94% of mobile and tablet search traffic comes from Google.Search engines drive 300% more website traffic than social media.Google receives approx. 63,000 searches per second. Which translates to:

  • 3.8 million searches every minute
  • 228 million searches every hour
  • 5.5 billion searches every day
  • 167 billion searches every month
  • 2 trillion searches every year

If those stats are not getting ou both nervous and excited, they should be. We are living in the most exciting age where digital is evolving every single day with new and exciting trends and methods to engage your customers and target audience. The only question is, will you be a part of it?*Stats may change due to search behaviour & Google updates*

What Is SEO?

‘Search Engine Optimisation is the consistent and frequent process of refining and optimising the visibility of your website or a web page in order to improve the visibility and engagement of your website. In turn (and if done correctly) this will boost your organic rankings and increase organic website visitors.

Let’s scale it down a touch:SEO is when you optimise your website, tweak its content and outsmart your competition in order to get more visitors clicking on your website listing in Google and other related search engines.

SEO functions within the full business objective and works seamlessly with all digital marketing campaigns to engage quality users, provide information and capture the desired conversion.’

Notice the two words within the opening sentence stating ‘refining’ and ‘optimising’. This shows the importance of an on-going, evergreen SEO strategy which is always evolving, updating and adapting to both Google search algorithm updates as well as changes in user search behaviour. SEO is no longer a silo on it’s own and it should be a valued extension of your business as well as any online marketing campaign.

Constant and consistent work on a website shows Google and other search engines that you care enough about your audience to keep your website fresh, up to date and optimised for SEO best practice.

I also like Neil Patel’s definition of SEO:

what is SEO

I wanted to research this further and see what a variety of active SEO professionals say about this. I found a great article by Ahrefs where a bunch of the top SEOs and marketers around the globe gave their own definitions of SEO. These were my personal favourite:

what is SEO

what is SEO

what is SEO

How keywords have evolved

Let me talk a little bit about keywords. Keywords are search phrases and variations of search phrases which users type in to find a service like yours or to find general content online. Whether users are needing information, tips and guides or if they are trying to find a specific service online, user search queries are here to stay.

Many years ago, SEO specialists or webmasters were able to shove your keyword phrases in your content as many times as possible in specific places of your content in order to get your web page to rank and, it actually worked.

However, this is not the case today as many black hat SEO’s will tell you – the unnatural use of keywords or repetition of keywords will be confusing to the user and may get you caught up in various Google penalties (Panda update).

The best way to find quality keywords is to identify the core search phrase you are wanting to be known for online and want to rank for, research some popular variations of that keyword phrase and then write them in your content in a natural manner.

Sounds easy right? Well it’s not! This is a core foundation of any SEO campaign known as keyword research and is one of the most important factors to the success of your rankings. You need to know what users are searching for and which content they are currently engaging with in order to create better content in the right manner.

Three Core Elements of SEO

There are three main silos of SEO which break down into many subcategories which we will explore in more detail further on (it is impossible to do this in one article so look out for the series!) These silos are Technical SEOOn Page SEOOff Page SEO.

For the purpose of this introductory article, I will be focusing more on technical SEO and On page SEO. We will explore Off Page SEO and link building in a separate article within this series – stay tuned.

what is SEO

TECHNICAL SEO (Essential points to note)

Technical SEO relates to elements such as website accessibly, website crawling and website indexing. You need to ensure that all search engines can find, access and crawl your website at all times.

What is the point of a beautiful website if search engines can’t access it? We all know that search engines have incredible abilities of accessing content, ranking content and displaying all types of content all over the world but, a search engine is not a human.

There will always be technical and ‘SEO 101’ elements which need to be functioning correctly as well as boxes which need to be ticked in order for search engines to enjoy accessing and crawling your website on a frequent. This is an ongoing process and one which adapts and changes frequently according to new digital updates and Google search changes – be sure to always stay up to date with the latest news and trends in the technical world of SEO.

Common Technical SEO problems that I see quite often can be things such as crawl errors, where pages on a website are broken or not working and these render a 404 error of some kind:

what is SEO

Website accessibility issues occur when a search engine is being blocked by various files, folders or incorrect coding elements.  This can often happen when a website has undergone new changes or new development and these pages were not taken off ‘development phase’.

Here is an example of crawl frequency and crawl errors from Google Search Console:

what is SEO

what is SEO

For the website above, Google were not crawling it much during the months of July and August 2018, however, the site underwent a redesign and fresh content was created along with a consistent roll out of SEO work every week, therefore we can see Google starting to enjoy the new content.

Fresh content and updates mean fresh signals for Google to crawl.

If your website is taking a long time to load, there will also be an issue with both user experience and search engine access. As of July 2018, Google now require your website to be fully loaded within three seconds or you can lose large amounts of traffic as well as experience higher bounce rates etc. This is relating to the Speed Update which Google released in July this year.

what is SEO

Essentially, for every extra second that your website takes to load, you will be saying goodbye to valuable user traffic and your website will be demoted in search results. Now more than ever, it is essential to ensure that your website is loading lightning fast on all devices but, in particular, on mobile device.

Let’s jump a little further with something known as Structured Data

We have all seen Structured Data (AKA Schema markup) in action on a daily basis without even knowing about it. Have you ever seen star ratings, reviews or other essential snippets show up on Google after you type in a search?

what is SEO

what is SEO

Schema markup (structured data) forms a large part of technical SEO. Some of those elements above will be familiar to you, as the presence of structured data is an essential requirement for all web pages. In fact, Google has mentioned numerous times that structured data is a ranking factor and that search engines look for this markup in all websites, regardless of the industry type.

I often explain the concept of structured data this way:

‘structured data is additional coding which is wrapped around existing content which assists search engines in understanding your content easier and ranking your content in an easier manner’. Here is an example of how structured data will look in the back end of a webpage:

what is SEO

what is SEO

what is SEO

On Page SEO

On Page SEO are all the elements which have a direct impact on the user from the initial listing in the search results page to the content on the page itself. In general, we have more control of On Page SEO elements as these are created and edited within the website code or in the backend of the website CMS such as WordPress or Drupal etc.

Optimising page title tags and description tags is one of the most common practices within On Page SEO as these results are what users will see directly in the search results:

what is SEO

what is SEO

Prior to optimising page title and description tags there needs to be focused and quality keyword and topical research which forms the foundation of which phrases you will be targeting and the search volume of each phrase. More on this topic further on!

Quality of the content on your page

Rankings are great BUT, it’s what happens after the click that truly matters. This brings us to an essential part of On Page SEO – Quality Content.

Imagine you type in a search query for ‘best family vehicle in South Africa’ and you clicked on a listing that took you to a webpage which had a small amount of content which did not provide you with the answers you were looking for. You would be irritated, right?

When creating on page content or articles you need to put yourself in the shoes of the user and see yourself as the audience. You will need to assume the role of an educator of a specific topic or niche.

Very often, you can feel the passion and knowledge a writer has on a topic which naturally speaks to you and conveys the correct information. This is awesome!

If I was working with a car blogger or car enthusiast who writes a lot of content and has a goal to grow website traffic to their blog and social channels, I would start out by finding out from them the type of topics that they are writing about or planning to write about and then come up with data-driven keyword research ideas based on their requirements.

We could end up with be something like this:

  • Best family car in 2018
  • What is the best family car on the market
  • Family SUV safety specs
  • How to find the best family car
  • ETC

Essentially, you will need to think of core phrases that describe your service as best as possible and then multiply on this term with variations as well as semantic versions of this phrase. Always remember – not everyone will refer to your product or service in the same way, people may use different variations to find you online.

Here is a working example for you:

Let’s say you are a musician and play the drums and you love gear. In fact, you love gear so much that you have stored up loads of great drumming equipment over the years and your passion really shines through every time you play the drums or talk about gear.

After a while you realize that you have a big enough of a following within the industry to start posting your drum clips and images online and maybe even sell some gear that you have collected over the years. A good way to start this would be to make yourself present online.

Now, this would take a well thought out campaign with a good mix of social media, content marketing and possibly some paid media advertising but, SEO would be a great way of grabbing users attention to your online store via both shopping elements as well as quality articles about some of your prize equipment and gear.

You would start out by ensuring that all of the products on your website have catchy title and descriptions (example to follow) as well as ensuring that when users land on your website pages, they have a good user experience in terms of great content and website speed.

The biggest priority within SEO in this day and age should be the overall user experience.

Here is an example of what I mean about the title and description tag which I have just written now:

Let’s say I have a wide range of snare drums which I sell, and I have this beautiful copper snare drum made by DW (Drum Workshop):

what is SEO

I really want to capture the user’s attention when they see my organic listing to encourage a click through to my website from the organic results and a sale. I will make sure that I include my target keyword search term and slight variations of that term within the title and description tag in a natural manner like below:

what is SEO

In this example, there is a heavy push to view and buy online which is very common to E-commerce SEO but these principles can be adapted to every industry. You just need to ensure that you are optimising for the correct audience.

Do you notice how I mention the phrases about ‘coper snare drum’ as well type of metals this drum is made from? Not only did I do this to sound natural to my audience and provide them value, but Google can understand that my page is also being optimised for copper snare drum or steel snare drums. Cool right? So, my keyword variations in this one would be:

Dw copper snare drum, copper snare drum, steel snare drum. The section where I spoke about the quality of the sound as in the snare drum warmth and crack are included to speak to my audience, as they will understand this language as it is common within music.

In the next section I am going to jump a little deeper into various metrics we monitor within SEO and how they work.

what is SEO

There are three crucial elements to SEO to understand before you even get into the specifics. There is you, the search engine (in most cases Google) and your target audience:

1- You2- Google/search engine3- Audience/customer

When I mention ‘you’ this could be your internal SEO specialist or webmaster or anyone who manages a websites SEO.

1 – You: You are responsible for researching and refining your website and content on a regular basis to provide your audience with the best content relating to your niche as well as to ensure that search engines can find your content, access it and then show it to users online.

2- Google/search engine: Google dominates the search engine market share, so most articles only speak about Google BUT, I want to emphasise that Bing and Yahoo are also massive search engines which should be accounted for too when you are planning a strategy. In my client reporting, I have noticed a large influx of traffic from Bing over the last year. This is most likely as Bing is the default search engine for any default Microsoft based machine or maybe people are wanting an alternative option for a search engine.

Google do own roughly 86% market share of the world’s searches and over 75% of new users start their searches on Google. So yeh, you should pay attention to everything Google are doing but remember to stay up to date with the search world in general as well as other viable search engines.

Google are the ones who must crawl your website, understand its content and then rank you website accordingly as they work through their many rankings factors relating to your website (over 200 ranking factors).

Too many times I have seen an amazing website which is beautifully designed and has a great user experience, but there are technical issues with the website accessibility or various technical SEO errors which are causing all search engines to not be able to access their website AT ALL.

That is super scary. Your target audience are the ones who will engage with your website and convert, but search engines need to find your website and show users your website before they can engage with it. Therefore, it needs to be a perfect relationship and mix of both technical and creative elements which require 100% effort on both sides (more on this later).

Lastly, the very description of SEO gives you a core tip right in its own title – ‘Search Engine Optimisation’. You need to understand how to optimise your website for search engine requirements and best practices!

3- Audience/customer: These are your end user who you should really care about and hold in the highest esteem as you provide online content or online services. How will a company make money on their Ecommerce store if they are not speaking their user’s language?

Whenever I speak on SEO or run SEO seminars I always say to the attendees that they need to put themselves in the shoes of the searcher. Put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. What title and description tag would appeal to you for a specific search term? Does the landing page design look good to you?

Does the content flow naturally and add value to someone’s experience or is it just lame? You need to put be able to adapt to any industry scenario and product offering in order to truly engage with your audience.

Too often we get caught up in metrics, statistics and analytics to the point that we miss the most important element = USER SIGNALS. You can have the best analytics and tracking software running on all of your platforms but if your audience is not engaging with your content or buying from you, then something is very wrong.

Analytics and software are essential and you need these, but don’t lose sight of who you are marketing for. Basic user signals within Google Analytics should be able to tell you a big story about if people are enjoying your content or not.

For example, let’s say I have written a piece of content or published a guide which is resonating well with my audience and generating a lot of page views as well as time spent on site, this will mean that I am doing something right which my audience are enjoying:

what is SEO

But, on the other hand, let’s say I am writing content just for the sake of writing content or say my article is not providing the best value, there will be little to no audience engagement:

what is SEO

Too often I read guides and tips on how to measure various metrics and multiply them all together to find out how your audience is enga…. Blah. This is all fine, but at the end of the day, your target audience will speak to you and show you how you are doing within your analytics.

Keyword research – Find the need to provide the answer

Many who understand the very basics of SEO will know a little bit about keyword research. This is one of the most crucial elements of your SEO campaign and forms the foundation for your strategy.

At one point in my career, I noticed that I was rushing the keyword research part and taking shortcuts. Looking back now, I really have no idea why I was doing this, but it was probably due to being lazy and not applying myself correctly.

Having said that, as the years have passed I have also learned a couple of tricks and tactics which optimised my keyword research process a lot more and makes it far more efficient. I am going to share some of these tactics with you right now:

Find terms that you want to be known for and then find more

We often sit with clients in a client discovery session where we get to know the specific business model, products or services as well as the clients needs. There is a crucial element here which can easily be overseen due to hype of the ‘big picture’. Ask your client exactly what keywords they want to rank for. It is that simple to start your keyword research process.

I like to put it this way to companies that I am consulting with:

‘Tell me what keyword phrases or search terms you want to be known for online?’ or ‘Which products or services would you like to rank for on Google?’

This can cause slight confusion for clients understanding the difference between Google Ads and organic results (SEO), do be sure to clarify these with them so that they can understand exactly what you will be working on as well as the specific SEO driven KPI’s that you will be working towards.

Build your keywords list

As I explained above in the example of the page title and description optimisation, you need to have a well-organised keyword list to work from which is focused, precise and targeting relevant search terms aimed at boosting your online traffic.

Be sure to spend time finding keywords which are not only relevant to your business, but keywords which have a decent amount of searches happening every month (search volume). Here is an example:

Let’s say I am looking for quality search phrases around carport and shade port installation. I would start with an initial list of the below:

  • Carports
  • Carport installation
  • Carports Gauteng
  • Install carport
  • Shadeports
  • Shadeport installation
  • Shadeport company
  • Install shadeport

Once I have an initial list of ideas and search phrases, I can then start taking the keyword research process quite a bit further. Firstly, lets see what other related searches are being searched on Google, you can do this by simply running a search on one of the above terms. Let’s use ‘carport installation’.

Run the search and scroll down to the bottom of the page to find searches related to your initial search:

what is SEO

Now, not all of these searches may be valuable or of interest to you, so be sure to only use relevant options which are focused and relevant to your end game.

I have noticed a common trend on various searches which are relating to ‘design’:

what is SEO

What does this tell me? That people are wanting to see the different designs of carports and understand carport designs. This is a need that we could fill by providing quality content around how our carports are designed, the type of material used when installing a carport as well as quality supporting images showing the different types of carport designs and styles.

Excuse the name of this tool, but I have included it as it has actually provided me with good data in the past (plus the name is somewhat hilarious); You can use the tool here

what is SEO

Paste in your seed keyword or keyword ideas (trust me, start small..) and hit S**t keywords. You can also add filters to include or exclude search terms:

what is SEO

The tool then generates hundreds of search variations as well as search ‘modifiers’ which relate to your keyword. I stop the search after a while as it generates so many keywords, some which are super helpful and others which are not. You can stop your search or continue it depending on the results you need.

what is SEO

Once you have done this you can export the results and add these into your favourite keyword research tool in order to see monthly search volumes, more ideas and keyword difficulty – let’s do this now.

Now that we have our initial list as well as the expanded list, it’s time to utilise a couple of awesome tools. There are many SEO tools our there and most of them are great but it comes down to your own personal preference and how the tools perform.

There are many resources and guides highlighting the top SEO tools and which are paid or free. Spend loads of time using these tools and testing them extensively to find the ones which are the most powerful and beneficial to you.

My personal favourite is Ahrefs which is a comprehensive SEO tool that has extremely powerful abilities to turn around your SEO and content marketing results. I have tried and tested many tools over the years and I use Ahrefs along with a couple of other tools too.

Let’s take our keyword list and run it through the Ahrefs keyword explorer:

what is SEO

Keyword explorer will yield some extremely valuable results, one of which, is really cool as there is an initial graphical element which shows you the total amount of monthly searches for your full keyword list per month PLUS the distribution of clicks between the paid results (Google Ads) and the organic results (SEO driven):

what is SEO

It is commonly known that most users engage with the organic results over the paid results. In fact, on average, 80% of users click on the organic results while the remaining 15 to 20% of users click on the paid section. By seeing the percentage split between the paid results and the organic results I can tell quickly which type of content and which type of content strategies are working for the current ranking websites.

As seen below we have some decent search volume to work with:

what is SEO

Notice a very helpful metric in green shown as KD? This represents keyword difficulty. Keyword difficulty is a number scored out of 100 which indicates how competitive a specific term is and how hard it would be to rank for this particular keyword.

Keyword difficulty should not be the ultimate deciding factor on your keywords list but it is extremely helpful as it gives you an indication of the type of content and backlinks pointing to that content which is ranking for the desired terms.

Notice above that the term ‘carports’ has a total of 1,600 searches happening every month. Shadeports has 400 monthly searches, while the other searches around carports which contain a location search drop a little in monthly search volume.

However, there are still a decent number of searches happening monthly for my initial list. Now let’s generate some additional keyword ideas from Ahrefs.

Click on the ‘overview’ tab to see other keyword ideas:

what is SEO

There is a wealth of additional keyword ideas which can be sifted through and analysed in order to discover new keyword ideas and variations.

By clicking on ‘carports cape town’, we will see even more metrics and, most importantly, who is currently ranking for this search term:

Here is the full overview of the view of the current top 10 ranking websites for the search phrase ‘carports cape town’:

what is SEONow click on the small drop-down arrow on each of the listings to see the EXACT keywords which that particular page is ranking for:

what is SEO

That is serious ammo you can leverage to target popular phrases as well as content which is working for the competing websites. You can repeat this process as much as you need to build up a valuable keyword list which will boost the visibility of your target pages.

The keyword research process requires a lot of focused plan, execution and documentation as this is the foundation of any SEO campaign. Within keyword research, the rabbit hole is never ending therefore stay focused on your core objectives and do not allow yourself to stray from your goals.

Wrapping up

I hope you have enjoyed this article! Core take aways:

  • Be sure to stay on top of the latest SEO and digital trends.
  • Ensure that your keyword research process is done with extreme focus, creativity and that it is targeting your desired audience to gain positive user engagement.
  • Plan out your On-Page SEO extensively by highlighting the search phrases and semantic terms you want to target.
  • Keep an eye on your competitors and leverage their marketing efforts.
  • Continue to learn and be awesome!


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