The term ‘SEO’ stands for Search Engine Optimization and it's one of the most important things that goes into creating and maintaining a successful website. In fact, SEO probably impacts you everyday.
Every time you search for something on Google and then click through on a website to take a look…that’s SEO at work. The results that pop up in your search engine list are a direct result of SEO work completed behind the scenes.
But SEO also has a reputation for being 1 part code and 2 parts alchemy. Maybe with a dash of black magic thrown on top. In other words, depending on what you read or who you listen to, SEO is a murky thing that is more art than science and is incredibly complicated. And of course, that means that most arts and culture nonprofit staff tasked with maintaining their org’s website don’t do much with it because they have 3 billion other things to take care of and understanding and implementing SEO just isn’t at the top of that list.
If that sounds like you (or whoever handles your website), then I have 2 things to say to you:
- SEO is important and you shouldn’t ignore it.
- Doing some basic SEO can go a long way and it doesn’t have to be complicated.
To that end, I want to lay out a few basic SEO concepts that you’ll need to understand and then I’m going to give you a rundown of some easy SEO stuff you can put into practice easily.
First up, 2 Core SEO concepts:
On-Page SEO vs. Off-Page SEO
On-Page SEO is all the things about your website and its pages that YOU can control. So that would be things like quality content, good grammar and writing structure, imagery that uses alt tags and descriptions, smart use of keywords, headlines, and an overall eye-pleasing layout. (If I’ve used some terms here you aren’t familiar with, like alt tags, don’t worry. They are pretty simple, and Moz has a great SEO Beginner's Terms Glossary that explains it all.)
Off-Page SEO is all the things you CAN’T directly control, but which still affect your search engine rankings (how high up on the list you appear when someone searches for content relevant to you). Off-Page SEO includes things like other websites which link to yours and how credible they are, how many people click through to your website from a link or search engine result. Social networks, and how you stack up relative to similar websites, etc.
The combination of On-Page and Off-Page SEO determines to a huge degree whether or not you show up first on a search engine’s list or 56th on the list where no one will likely see you.
White Hat SEO vs. Black Hat SEO:
Whenever a system exists that can determine a person or organization’s success, you can bet that someone out there will look for a way to circumvent that system or to game it. And that’s where “white hat” and “black hat” SEO comes in.
White Hat SEO encompasses all of the above-the-board, “good” techniques and tactics for building a great website that ranks highly with search engines. White hat tactics are the right thing to do, but they do typically take longer to show results.
White hat tactics are based on…
- Relevant, high-quality content
- Well-written pages and content
- Relevant links that do NOT go to shady websites
- Unique, relevant page titles, URLs, headings, and subheadings
- Images with good descriptions and alt tags (alt tags and descriptions are not actually seen on the website. These are pieces of metadata that are attached to photos and graphics and help those with visual impairments to understand imagery used in a website)
Black Hat SEO is a set of underhanded tactics that will usually get you ranked highly in search engine results fairly quickly, but may ultimately get your website blacklisted from those same search engines. Repairing your website’s reputation and ranking can be really difficult after that.
Black hat tactics are based on…
- Low-quality content or duplicating/plagiarising content that exists elsewhere
- “Keyword stuffing” (this is where you stuff keywords into your content to the point where it doesn’t make sense and no one would actually want to read it)
- Linking to very popular, but irrelevant websites
- Using invisible text hidden in the webpage to stuff in more keywords
- Images with no alt text or descriptions
- Subpar layouts and coding
Anything that lies in the grey area between these two is called “Grey Hat” SEO. But you’ve probably figured out that you’re better off erring on the side of “White Hat” SEO. And if you’ve unknowingly engaged in any Black Hat techniques, I suggest fixing those ASAP. Here's some more info on White Hat vs. Black Hat techniques from the CrazyEgg website, if you're interested.
Ok, so now that you know a bit about some of the core concepts underlying SEO, how do you put this into practice without being overwhelmed? Well, there’s absolutely tons of stuff you could do for some fancy optimization, but if you want to put in the place some basics that will pay off, here are the 5 things you should focus on:
Next, Five Simple SEO Basics to Implement Right Now:
#1 – Fantastic Content
Content is king so this is probably the most important thing you can do to optimize your site for search engines. The one and only job of search engines is to locate the content that answers their users’ questions and serve it up to them. Put quality, useful information on your website that’s easy to read, easy to navigate, and search engines will take notice. Pay attention to the quality of your copy (correct spelling and grammar matter), write engaging blogs or articles, make frequent updates, and make sure that everything is concise, simple, and compelling.
#2 – Solid Architecture
This is how your website is actually built. Your website needs to be clean, uncluttered, load quickly on all browsers and devices, and be simple to navigate. If it isn’t, search engines will notice this and will drop your site in its rankings as a result. Good code and design are your friend!
#3 – Keyword Research
Each page of your website should have at least one focus keyword associated with it. That same keyword (or keywords) should be thoughtfully woven into the content, headings, titles, and URl on that same page as well. But don’t just choose a keyword/term randomly. Do some keyword research using a tool like Google’s Keyword Planner or Moz Keyword Explorer to determine what might be a good keyword or phrase to associate with the particular content on that page. Hint: the best keywords or phrases have a high monthly search volume, but a low-medium difficulty rating (the difficulty rating tells you how hard it will be to rank for that keyword).
#4 – On-Page Settings
Don’t worry. You don’t need to learn how to code to get this part right. Depending on what platform your website is built on, this can be accomplished through the use of plug-ins, text editors, or even the native content management system itself (such as WordPress). Here are the basic on-page settings you should pay attention to:
- Use title tags for headings throughout the page (these are labeled ‘H1, H2, H3, and so on).
- Make sure only one section of text per webpage is H1. The other tags should be used for subheadings.
- Ensure you have meta descriptions and SEO titles for every page throughout your website.
- Set a focus keyword or phrase for every page and make sure it’s relevant to the content on that page.
- Use a feature image with relevant alt text and description on every page.
#5 – Link Building
When you include links on your website that take users out to other, credible sites which enhance their experience or help give them additional tools, search engines take notice. They learn that your website is useful, credible, and isn’t sending people to spam materials or giving them irrelevant information. This works in reverse, too. When other credible websites link to yours (off-page SEO), that also shows search engines that your site is high-quality. All of this linking to and from your site, if done right, will help you rise in the search rankings. Here’s how to build links use white hat techniques:
- Only link to sites that you trust and that you think your users will be interested in.
- When it makes sense, ask for others to link to your site (think partner organizations, community businesses, thought leaders, etc.).
- Develop quality “anchor text” for your links. Anchor text is the highlighted text which people click on to take them to a linked site. For example, bad quality anchor text would be a link that just reads “click here”. Good anchor text may read something like “View our programming at ABC High School”
- Don’t insert links just to do it. If your page is full of links (especially duplicates) and distract from the message of the page, it will be frustrating for visitors to read and search engines will rank it lower as a result. Just place links where it makes sense. No less. No more.