SEO Basics: How to Do SEO for Beginners

Connor Lahey

Dec 27, 202318 min read
Contributor: Rachel Handley
SEO Basics

TABLE OF CONTENTS

This is the complete guide to SEO for beginners.

We’ve made it easy to understand the SEO basics. And start building a strategy that boosts your website traffic.

What Is SEO?

SEO (search engine optimization) is the process of improving the performance, experience, and authority of your website so it can gain better visibility in search engines like Google. 

Specifically, SEO is about ranking higher in organic (unpaid) search results. Not paid or sponsored results.

Here’s what both types of results look like:

Paid and organic search results on SERP

Paid results are results that advertisers pay for through Google Ads. The ranking system is completely separate from the one used for organic results.

Google’s organic results are ranked based broadly on relevance, quality, usability, and context. And are not “pay to play.”

SEO becomes important in the organic results. 

Why Is SEO Important?

SEO is important because it can bring more traffic, leads, customers, and revenue to your business. Even basic SEO strategies can deliver a huge return on investment.

There are billions of searches on Google every day. And 45.1% of desktop users click on an organic result, according to Semrush’s State of Search 2023 report. 

(Typically, the higher you rank, the more clicks you get.)

By comparison, only 1.8% of desktop users click a paid result. Even though ads are usually at the top of the page.

And when SEO is done right, the results can add up fast. 

Amazon got 546.3 million visits from Google users in the U.S. in November 2023, according to Semrush’s Organic Research tool.

It would cost the company around $336.9 million to get that much traffic via Google Ads.

Amazon's traffic and traffic cost data in Organic Research tool

And unlike paid traffic, these organic visitors come in whether or not Amazon is actively running ads. 

To be clear: SEO is an ongoing process that takes work. But once you rank for a set of keywords, your rankings typically remain somewhat stable over time. 

In short, SEO ensures your brand is visible when potential customers search on Google (or other search engines).

This can help you:

  • Get more organic traffic and conversions (e.g., online orders)
  • Increase brand awareness
  • Gain a competitive advantage

SEO 101: Ensuring Google Can Index Your Site

If Google cannot crawl and index a page properly, the page cannot appear in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs).

How search engines work

It’s not necessarily a bad thing if a page isn’t indexed. Some pages (e.g., order confirmation pages) aren’t supposed to be accessible through Google.

But if you do want a page to rank, you should make sure it’s indexed. The best way is to use Google Search Console, a free tool from Google.

After setting up, explore the “Indexing” report.

“Indexing” report overview in GSC

If a URL isn’t indexed, you can easily find out why. Then try to fix the potential crawlability issue.

"Why pages aren't indexed" section of the report

One of the best ways to fix crawlability issues is to create an XML sitemap.

This is a digital document that helps search engines understand the structure of your site.

An XML sitemap

How exactly you create a sitemap depends on what content management system (CMS) your site runs on (WordPress, Shopify, etc.)

Whatever method you use to create the file, submit it through the “Sitemaps” section in Google Search Console.

Which looks like this:

“Sitemaps” section in GSC

To learn about all the other things you can do with this tool, check out our Google Search Console guide

Otherwise, let’s get into the meat of this beginner’s guide.

Starting with one of the more critical SEO concepts: keyword research.

Keyword Research

Keyword research is the process of finding what queries people search in Google. And identifying the ones you want to rank for.

With Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool, you can find keywords related to any topic.

Just enter a term to base your search around. Then, choose your country and click “Search.”

"dog food" entered into the Keyword Magic Tool search bar

The tool provides a list of “Broad Match” terms by default, which contain your starting term(s) or close variations.

There are lots of other filters that can help you focus on the most relevant results.

Broad match results for "dog food" in Keyword Magic Tool

When choosing keywords for your site (or a specific page), relevancy is the most important thing. 

For example, there’s no point in targeting “Royal Canin dog food” if you don’t sell these products.

After relevancy, you can focus on these two keyword metrics:

"Volume," and "KD%" columns highlighted

Obviously, the higher the search volume, the more potential traffic you can get. But higher-volume keywords tend to be more competitive.

For example, “Royal Canin dog food” has a volume of 49,500 and a difficulty score of 81% in the U.S. 

Whereas “Royal Canin hydrolyzed protein dog food” has a volume of 1,900 and a difficulty score of 39%.

“Royal Canin dog food,” and “Royal Canin hydrolyzed protein dog food” results highlighted

Generally, you’re better off getting a high ranking for a low-volume keyword. Rather than a low ranking for a high-volume keyword. Because most people click on a top result.

You can always scale up to more competitive keywords as your site’s SEO improves. 

In the next section, we’ll explain how to create content centered around your target keywords.

Content 

Content is a big deal in SEO. So let’s cover exactly how to create SEO-friendly content.

Understand What Searchers Want to See for a Query 

The first step to creating SEO-friendly content is figuring out the search intent for that keyword. 

What is search intent, exactly?

Search intent is the underlying reason why someone searched for a given keyword.

For example, take the keyword “organic dog treats.”

Do they want to buy something (transactional intent)? Find out the best products to buy (commercial intent)? Learn what organic dog treats are (informational intent)? Or go to organicdogtreats.com (navigational intent).

Why is this important?

Google can figure out whether or not your site is satisfying search intent. 

If so, you could get a rankings boost. If not, you’ll have a hard time ranking on Google’s first page.

So, before writing a single word, you need to know whether a searcher intends to see blog posts, product pages, service information pages, or something else altogether.

To do this, enter your keyword(s) into Semrush’s Keyword Overview tool.

In the “Intent” section, you’ll see the type of search intent.

"organic dog treats" keyword has commercial intent

For more insight, scroll down to “SERP Analysis” and see what types of pages are ranking. 

Click “View SERP” to analyze the results page for yourself.

“SERP Analysis” section of the report

For example, when you read through the first page results for “organic dog treats,” you’ll notice that many of the top-ranking pages are review pages.

Google's first page search results for “organic dog treats"

Although a few are ecommerce category pages:

"Organic Dog Treats" category on ecommerce site

(This is known as “mixed intent.” Which is common. It’s not always the case that 100% of the people searching for a given keyword want the same thing).

But considering that most of the results are product review pages, that’s probably the type of page you’d want to create. Assuming it fits with your wider marketing goals.

Also look at the content itself to get a feel for word count, readability, layout, and more. 

A blog page with the title that reads "10 Best Organic Dog Treats 2022 - Reviews & Guide"

This gives you insight into what’s working. And helps you develop your own plan.

Create Content That’s the Best of Its Kind

Now you know what will satisfy search intent, it’s time to create content that’s the best of its kind. So you can earn the highest ranking on the SERP.

Use the Semrush SEO Content Template to produce a framework for each page.

Enter the keyword(s) you’re primarily targeting, and it will analyze the top 10 organic results. To provide a list of recommendations.

SEO Recommendations in SEO Content Template

You’ll be able to get insight into the recommended text length, semantically related words to build in, recommended sources of backlinks, and more. 

Combine this with the insights you gained from manually analyzing the top 10 results, and you’ll be set to focus on creating content that’s primed to rank on the first page of Google. 

Once you’re ready, click “Real-time Content Check” > “Open in SEO Writing Assistant.”

“Open in SEO Writing Assistant" button highlighted

You (and your brief) will go to the SEO Writing Assistant.

This tool lets you monitor SEO, readability, and tone of voice while you’re writing.

It also has built-in AI copywriting tools and a plagiarism checker.

SEO Writing Assistant editor

Optimize Your Above the Fold Section

The “above the fold” section refers to the first thing a user sees when clicking on your webpage. 

This is an important section because it’s your webpage’s “first impression.”

If users see content that indicates they’re in the right place, they’re likely to scroll down.

Here’s an example of a nice above the fold section:

Above the fold section of Semrush's blog on content writing

If not, they might bounce back to the search results to read the many other articles on the topic.

User Experience

User experience (UX) refers to the overall experience of a person exploring your website. 

UX has a direct and indirect impact on SEO.

UX can directly impact your SEO, as a bad UX can mean that Google’s users spend less time on your site. And leave quickly without completing any desired action. 

This suggests your site may not be worthy of the first page of search results.

The opposite is also true: A site with a solid UX suggests that you’re making searchers happy. 

UX can indirectly affect SEO because a great UX shows others that your site is a helpful resource, leading to more backlinks coming your way. 

For example, well-known finance site NerdWallet picked up a huge number of backlinks in its early days. And one of the key reasons was likely its trustworthy design and excellent UX.

NerdWallet's user interface

Use Enticing CTAs

Great call-to-action (CTA) buttons draw the user in without being intrusive or gimmicky. 

For example, this CTA appears at the end of one of our articles.

A CTA inviting users to try Semrush's Keyword Gap Tool

As you can see, this CTA flows naturally with the page and actually provides value for a user that’s wondering what to do next.

Avoid Walls of Text 

When you’re writing and optimizing your content, it’s important to consider the white space on your webpages. 

Frequent paragraph breaks give readers a visual respite from text walls. Making your content easier to read and skim.

For example, this post uses short paragraphs, images, and headings. Which makes it very “skimmable.”

A section of Semrush's blog with a heading, short paragraphs and an image

Use Listicles, Bullets, and Numbered Lists

In addition to using white space as a visual respite for users, you can also break content out into bulleted and numbered lists. 

Here’s an example from our blog:

A section of a blog using bullet points to break down the content

Lists aren’t a direct ranking factor. But numbered and bulleted lists tend to have a better chance at securing a featured snippet like the one below. 

A featured snippet with a numbered list on SERP

On-Page SEO 

Now it’s time to optimize your page around a keyword (also known as “on-page SEO”).

Here are a few critical on-page techniques that every SEO beginner should know:

Title Tags

Title tags can appear as the title of your SERP listing. And they are a key ranking factor.

A title tag that reads "5-Minute Homemade Latte (No Fancy Equipment!)"

At the most basic level, you’ll want to make sure that the title tags of your site’s pages include the main target keyword for the page (and variants, where natural).

But there’s more to optimizing these than simply adding keywords. Our guide on how to write title tags outlines a few other tips to keep in mind as you write your title tags:

  • Keep titles about 50-60 characters long
  • Make sure each title is unique and descriptive
  • Check the SERP to see how you can make your title stand out

Meta Descriptions

Meta descriptions are page summaries that can display under the page title on SERPs. 

A meta description highlighted on SERP

These are excellent opportunities to encourage users to click on your listing over your competitors’ listings.

Meta descriptions are not a direct ranking factor. But a compelling description can positively impact CTR (click-through rate), which is crucial. 

Here are some quick tips to optimize them properly:

  • Keep them about 105 characters long
  • Include your primary keyword
  • Add a CTA if it’s relevant
  • Avoid duplicate meta descriptions
  • Make them meaningful and descriptive, matching your content

Heading Tags 

Heading tags are HTML tags that help Google understand the structure of your page.

Each page should have one H1 tag that contains the main title. And use H2-H6 tags for subheadings, depending on their level in the structure.

Like this:

How to use heading tags and subheadings

In addition to using subheadings to organize your content, include target keywords and related terms inside of each subheading. Where it’s natural to do so.

A section of a textbook with target keyword included in the subheadings

Page URLs 

Each page’s URL should describe its content concisely. 

Think about it this way:

If you had two page URLs:

  • /shoes/2789469760/
  • /red-shoes/

Which one would you say is better optimized?

The second, of course, for the simple reason that it’s descriptive. By looking at the URL, you can identify that the page is about red shoes.

As a general rule of thumb, URLs should:

  • Be descriptive and include the page’s primary keyword
  • Use hyphens to separate words
  • Use lowercase, rather than mixing in capital letters
  • Be as short as possible while still describing the content of the page

Images

Optimizing images helps you provide a better user experience. It can also help you rank higher in search (particularly in Google Images).

Our guide to image optimization offers a few tips to help you get started:

  • Use descriptive file names
  • Reduce file sizes and compress images to decrease loading times
  • Write descriptive alt text to help search engines and improve accessibility
  • Try to use unique images rather than stock images

No guide to website SEO basics would be complete without at least touching on internal linking. Linking between pages on your site can: 

  • Help search engines understand your site’s structure
  • Pass authority (aka PageRank) between pages
  • Encourage users to navigate between pages

With Semrush’s Site Audit tool, you can check for common internal linking issues. Such as:

Internal linking report in Site Audit tool

Another central pillar of SEO success comes from building your site’s authority in the eyes of Google.

How do you do that? Use link building to earn backlinks.

In short, a backlink is one website giving a link “back” to your website—essentially giving you a vote of confidence and supporting you. As long as the site linking back to yours is a trustworthy and relevant site, that link can help you rank higher on Google.

Let’s explore some of the most accessible link building tactics for SEO beginners.

One of the quickest wins for building links is reaching out to real-life connections your business has.

These connections include:

  • Your suppliers
  • Associations that you’re a member of
  • Your office block’s website
  • Your local chamber of commerce

Often, all you need to do is reach out to your contact at that site. And they’ll be happy to add your link.

2. Submit Your Site to Quality Directories

If you’re a local business or work in a specific niche, you’ll likely find that there are directories in your space. This can be a speedy way to build a few solid links for your site.

Just make sure that they’re high-quality directories with strict standards for who they’ll include.

With Semrush’s Listing Management tool, you can automatically submit your business information to top directories like Yahoo, Apple, and Bing.

HARO is a platform that connects journalists with business owners and marketers just like you.

Three times a day, Monday to Friday, HARO sends out an email that includes requests from journalists like this:

HARO's "Business & Finance Queries: Afternoon Edition" email

If there’s a relevant request that makes sense for your business, go ahead and respond. This could result in a high-quality backlink that drives referral traffic, brand awareness, and SEO benefits.

HARO can be very hit or miss. But even a single link from a relevant site can make a difference in your Google rankings (especially if your site is brand new).

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is about making sure your site is easily accessible to search engines and performs well for users.

If you have not done so already, connect your site to Google Search Console. And fix any indexing problems.

Then, dive into these other technical SEO basics:

Check Your Robot.txt File

Depending on your site’s CMS, you may have a robots.txt file set up. It’s typically found at: https://www.yourdomain.com/robots.txt

And it should look something like this:

A robots.txt file

If you don’t have one, you’ll want to create one.

But what is robots.txt for, exactly?

Robots.txt instructs Googlebot (and other website crawlers) on how to crawl your site. For example, it can block certain pages from being accessed.

You should ensure that Google has access to unique, high-quality pages that you want to be indexed. And block access to duplicate or private pages.

Optimize Your Core Web Vitals

Core Web Vitals are page speed metrics that can affect Google rankings. 

In addition to being better for SEO, a faster website is better for users. When you improve load times, you may see lower bounce rates, increased dwell times, and better conversion rates.

You can check your Core Web Vitals in Google Search Console.

Core Web Vitals in GSC

Click through to your mobile or desktop report to get more detailed information. And advice on improving your metrics.

"Why URLs aren't considered good" section of Core Web Vitals report

Or use the Core Web Vitals report in Semrush’s Site Audit tool.

Core Web Vitals report in Site Audit tool

Check out your other issues, too. The tool performs over 140 checks to help you optimize your technical SEO.

Setup HTTPS

HTTPS has been a ranking factor since 2014

Yet there are still sites that aren’t secure and still sit on an HTTP domain. Run a check on whether you can access your site using https:// rather than http://. 

If you can, then great! There’s no further action needed. 

If you find that your site still sits on HTTP, speak with your developer or website host and carefully plan a migration to HTTPS.

Otherwise, your visitors might see a warning like this:

Visiting a non secure site warning

And your rankings and traffic might suffer.

Mobile SEO

Google uses mobile-first indexing, which means the mobile version of your site is the “main” version in Google’s eyes.

So, it’s crucial to prioritize mobile SEO. In other words, deliver a great experience to users on smartphones and tablets.

Here are a few basic guidelines for making your website mobile-friendly: 

  • Use a responsive website layout that automatically adapts to the user’s screen
  • Don’t let your navigation bar get too cluttered or too long, as this will be harder for mobile users to sort through 
  • Use animations sparingly as these can slow down mobile page speed 

Again, you can check for issues via Google Search Console or Semrush’s Site Audit tool.

Measuring SEO Success 

Before you put this SEO guide into practice, you should collect some benchmark metrics. And understand how to track your success.

Let’s look at some of the most important SEO metrics:

Organic Search Traffic 

Organic search traffic refers to the number of visitors to your site from unpaid search engine results. 

The best way to measure organic traffic is using Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

Search traffic graph in Google Analytics 4

(Haven’t set up GA4 yet? Check out our Google Analytics guide for advice.)

If your organic traffic numbers are going up, that’s a good indicator that your content resonates with people, your keywords aren’t too competitive, and the links you’re building are working. 

If your traffic numbers are trending down, your site may be running into technical SEO issues or targeting overly competitive keywords.

Or perhaps your site just needs more time to start seeing SEO results. It typically takes at least four months for SEO to work.

Keyword Rankings

Keyword rankings indicate whether your SEO strategy is paying off.

Remember: You want to rank in position one (or as close to it as possible). That way, more people should see and click your result.

You can track your Google rankings in Search Console.

Go to “Performance” > “Search results” and check all the boxes at the top.

Performance on search results graph in Search Console

Then, scroll down to the “Queries” table. To see up to 1,000 top keywords for your site.

“Queries” table in GSC

For more insights, use Semrush’s Position Tracking tool.

Rankings overview report in Position Tracking tool

It allows you to:

  • Track all your target keywords, even if you don’t rank for them yet
  • Get alerts about important ranking changes
  • See whether your site ranks in any SERP features (e.g., the “People also ask” box)
  • Compare your overall visibility against competitors’
  • Quickly reference useful data, like keyword volumes and difficulty scores

And much more.

Engagement Rate and Bounce Rate 

In GA4, the engagement rate is the percentage of sessions (website visits) that:

  • Last longer than 10 seconds, 
  • Include a conversion event, and/or
  • Involve at least two page views or screen views

On the other hand, the bounce rate is the percentage of disengaged sessions.

A high bounce rate can indicate that your content isn’t well-aligned with users’ search queries. You may have to do further keyword research or streamline your content to serve your site visitors better. 

Conversions

You can set up conversion events in GA4 to track when users take desired actions (e.g., place an order or submit an inquiry form).

Conversion events table in GA4

However, it may be more helpful to look at:

  • Session conversion rate: the percentage of sessions (website visits) that generate conversions
  • User conversion rate: the percentage of unique website visitors who’ve converted at least once
"Session conversion rate" column highlighted in GA4

If you’re failing to convert traffic into leads and customers, you’ll want to determine if: 

  • Your desired conversion is something reasonable (like a new visitor signing up for a newsletter)
  • You’re targeting keywords potential customers use in Google
  • Your site has a UX that encourages people to stick around

Start Your SEO Journey

Now that you’ve read this beginner’s guide to SEO, you’re probably keen to start optimizing your site.

Semrush tools can streamline the process and provide all the insights you need to succeed.

We recommend starting with a free website audit. So you can fix any crucial issues that are holding your rankings back.

Simply enter your domain here, click “Start Audit,” and follow the step-by-step instructions. 

Then, start putting SEO basics into action.

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Content strategist, SEO and writer. Enjoys monitoring SERP volatility. You can find me reading Tolkien in the far north of Norway.
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