A Quick and Dirty SEO Guide for People Who Really Don’t Get SEO

Of all the buzzy new business and content terms out there, “SEO” might be the most misunderstood, and one of the most important, especially if you design a lot of websites like we do at 214. It checks all the boxes: content-focused, web-borne, Google-pleasing. There are a billion listicles out there, all trying to explain how to game the system, to get to the top of the list with the most optimized results. The problem is, there’s a lot of misinformation, outdated information, and overly complex information out there, leaving those of us who aren’t at SEO firms or marketing agencies with only a vague notion that keywords are really, really important. If this sounds familiar, know that you are certainly not alone.

What actually is SEO?

Let’s start with the basics. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization (or Optimized or even Optimizer, depending on usage). Basically, this means refers to following the guidelines that allow a website to show up higher in an online search.

TL;DR: SEO means Search Engine Optimization. It helps your site scoot to the top of Google’s results page.

Why is SEO important?

In very, very, very basic terms, because technology can’t do everything (yet) and because everyone wants to be first. Let me explain.

Search engine algorithms can’t actually “read” websites in the sense that people can to evaluate good/useful content, so they need other clues as to what’s relevant for their users. Enter SEO.

You want to follow SEO best practices in order to be at the top of that results list, because you can’t count on your audience to scroll to the third page. You don’t want to be categorized by search engines as spam, or build a site that (to their algorithms) doesn’t show up.

TL;DR: You have a business/blog/other site. You want customers/audience/attention/$$$. You want to be #1.

How do search engines evaluate a site?

Search engines have programs that visit or “crawl” websites, collecting information to create entries in their databases so their result lists are more accurate and useful to users. These crawlers primarily use links to navigate among pages on a site, and to evaluate its legitimacy and popularity, so make yours more accessible through a clear structure, links, and keywords. That being said…

Don’t panic and try to design a site for a bot. SEO is largely based on how user-friendly (read: people-friendly) a site is. So if it’s designed well for a person, it should be designed well for a search engine.

TL;DR: Search engines use bots to collect info. They like things organized and useful, just like people.

Okay, so how do I optimize my site?

This gets trickier. It’s not an exact science, but there are a lot of things you can do to improve your search ranking, including:

  • Use relevant keywords.
  • Design an appealing, accessible site. If it looks good, it’s (hopefully) well-structured, plus people are more likely to spend time on and link to a nice-looking site.
  • Make it user-friendly. It should be easy to navigate and easy to understand.
  • Earn links from other credible sites. This shows that your content is both popular and trustworthy, boosting your ranking — so create something people want to share!
  • And above all… deliver useful, high-quality content. Results are a ranking of relevance and popularity — and yes, it is a contest.

TL;DR: Write like a human, design for humans, make good stuff so other people want to share your stuff.

If keywords aren’t everything, what’s the deal?

Are they all-powerful or not? How many should I use? How do I figure them out? So. Many. Questions. Like most things with SEO, there’s a longer answer (you can dive deeper here), but we’ll keep it short and sweet.

Keywords are the search terms that you’ve decided best describe your site, and what you want to show up for in a list. The more specific your keywords, the narrower your competition, and the better your chances of a higher ranking. You might think you want to rank for the widest terms to catch the widest audience (ex. “leggings” vs. “black Lululemon capris”), but specificity can pay off, especially for businesses. Someone browsing for “shoes” is likely doing just that — browsing — whereas someone searching for a specific term is ready to buy.

TL;DR: Choose descriptive, specific keywords. Don’t overuse them.

How to determine your keywords

  • Brainstorm. What would you search? What make sense for your site?
  • Actually search. What other sites come up? What do they use? What do search engines guess?
  • Check out an online keyword research tool (like this, or this).
  • If you have the means and inclination, run a test campaign to see which of your potential keywords are most successful.

TL;DR: Common sense and Google.

How to use your keywords

In the name of good writing and SEO, put down the list and write like a human, for a human. Keywords are important, but should be used when and where they make sense — not in every sentence. You rank higher by creating quality content that reads naturally, and not like spam. Where and how keywords are used matters. You can improve your rankings by including keywords you want to rank for in page titles, text, and metadata.

Where to put your keywords

  • In the URL. Write user-friendly URLs that give readers a sense of what your page is about, and avoid crazy strings of extra characters.
  • In the title tags. These are the clickable headlines that show up on results pages, so make them short, sweet, and descriptive.
  • Near the top of the page. Make it stand out.
  • In the body copy. Include them several times, with variations, but make sure they make sense in context!
  • In the alt attribute for images. This is the alternative text displayed when images can’t load (and seen by crawlers). Web searches. Image searches. One stone.
  • In the meta description tag. This is the text preview that shows up on the results page, so although it won’t help your rankings, it can get you clicks from users scrolling through.

TL;DR: Include keywords in the big places: URLs, titles, title tags, meta description tags, alt attribute for images, body copy. But don’t overstuff. Write like the human you (hopefully) are.

Are there any shortcuts I can use?

Yes and no. Technically, you can buy or make deals for links and other such questionable practices, but the penalties for doing so are pretty severe. Search engines don’t like being played, or being tricked into serving users subpar content. Is it worth risking your site being removed from Google’s index? Probably not.

Remember that boosting a site’s ranking is a process, even if you’ve done everything right for on-site SEO. It takes time for search engines to crawl your site, not to mention earning links. There’s no instant fix, so be patient!

TL;DR: If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is. This holds true for SEO schemes. Don’t fall for them. Be patient, stay determined.

Great! I’m an expert now! SEO best practices don’t really change, right?

Actually, yes. They’ve changed a lot in the last two decades. Tactics that used to work have become almost irrelevant or can even hurt your ranking now. And as search algorithms continue to improve, SEO guidelines will continue to evolve with them.

TL;DR: Keep checking back for SEO updates 🙂

Kathryn Butler