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Understanding SEO: For Beginners

What a mess of big words.

Search engine optimization doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. And we’d know. We have to say it a lot. So it’s much easier to call it SEO, but knowing what that means is even less clear.

So, you ask, "is search engine optimization about search engines?"


SEO is all about optimizing your content and web pages for search engines (like Google) so that your website can appear on the search engine results page.

(Want to be at the top of the Search Engine Results Page -SERP-? Check this out.)

So what does that mean?

Think about your own experience when you want to find something.

Let’s kick it back old-school with our Millennials, Gen X and Boomers and talk about Encyclopedias.

(If you’re Gen Z, an encyclopedia is like the book-version of Wikipedia, but with fewer pages and no editing unless you use a pen. A pen is a...)

bird's eye view person using laptop
A quick analogy to explain what search engine optimization is

So, you go searching through your dusty book shelves for your encyclopedia because you want to learn more about coffee (I mean, don't we all?).

You want to learn the origins of coffee.

So we’re going to break this down piece by piece with an encyclopedia example for how you find what you're looking for, and an example of how search engine optimization works with your website to know when your website is what someone is looking for.

We will look at two examples of on-page SEO, and then we will look at one example of off-page SEO (don't worry, we will explain these further).

Examples of On-Page SEO

What is on-page search engine optimization? On-page SEO relates to things that you can do on your web pages directly to optimize it for getting found on Google.

First things first, you need to find your encyclopedia (not physically, we know it's likely been "filed away" with your phone book).

H1 Headers Help SEO

If you actually have an encyclopedia, you can find the book easily, because it has, “Encyclopedia” written in big, bold font right down the spine. It's easily found.

So how can we make your website more easily found?

On your website, you have H1 Headings. These are the big titles on your various web pages.

Not only can these tell humans what that page is about, but it also tells search engines, like Google, what the context of your webpage is.

If the Encyclopedia just said “Stuff,” down the side, that doesn’t tell you what it is.

If you’re searching online for coffee, but a local coffee shop has their name, “California Sunrise” as an H1 Header, search engines don’t understand that this has anything to do with coffee (we wouldn't either!).

Therefore, based on that H1 Header alone, Google can’t offer the "California Sunrise" website as a search result for someone searching for “coffee near me.”

So what does this mean for SEO and your website?

On your website, are your H1 Headers simple and descriptive? Do they supply your customers and search engines alike with the necessary information to know what your page is about?

That’s a great place to start in improving your website SEO, and going forward, whenever you add a new page or a new product, this will be part of the process.

ie: "California Sunrise" could simply add "coffee" to become "California Sunrise Coffee." Now it's more clear (for humans and search engines) what that website is about.

Okay, so we found the right book because it has the descriptive title we were looking for.

But now we need to find the specific page on Coffee. You open up your encyclopedia to the index and see that the main page about Coffee is 42.

You noticed we said main page? We’ll come back to that in a minute.

Your Website Copy, Subheadings and SEO

So you flip to page 42 in your encyclopedia, and see your big heading, “Coffee,” at the top of the page and you immediately know you’re in the right place because the H1 page header is optimized (remember your headers on every page!).

This is enough for you to know the content of the page, but it's not enough information for Google.

You scan the text below the page title and see that there are subheadings that reference coffee and related topics, such as, “The Origins of the Coffee Bean,” and, "Lattes, Espresso, Cappuccino: The Different Ways People Enjoy Coffee Around the World.”

These are just like the subheadings on your web pages, and even your captions for photos and copy (text) on your web pages.

If it’s about coffee, the more coffee is mentioned in different ways, the more Google understands that this page is definitely about coffee.

So that, when someone searches, “coffee,” search engines like Google know that this page belongs somewhere in the results.

How to use subheadings and website text for SEO

H1 headings are a start to optimizing your web pages for search engines, but you need to do more.

Use all text opportunities on your website to be descriptive about what the page is about.

Using "ancient technology" to understand SEO

That doesn't mean writing, "California Sunrise Coffee" at every opportunity, but thinking about (or perhaps researching) what people search for when looking for local coffee. Then incorporate those words and phrases into your subheadings, text, captions and even the file names of your photos.

ie: People in our area search for, "Perth Ontario coffee shops." Therefore, the fictitious, Perth-based California Sunrise Coffee should consider mentioning "Perth Ontario coffee shop" and "coffee shop in Perth Ontario" in a few places across their website.

From the subheadings in our Encyclopedia and scanning the text for the keywords, we are able to find the information we are looking for. In the same way, search engines scan the content on your website to understand the subject and context.

Your subheadings, text and captions on your web pages help search engines identify the content so that they can match it with, and show it to, people searching for your business type.

Remember from the encyclopedia index that we were just focusing on the "main" page?There are a bunch of other page numbers in the index listed under coffee. These pages lead to topics related to coffee, and more importantly, they link back to the page on coffee.

Learning Off-Page SEO for Your Website

What is off-page SEO? Off-page search engine optimization are tactics you use off of your website to help connect to it more broadly.

Page 42 was our main page on coffee in our encyclopedia. However, Columbia is the topic on page 187 and mentions coffee, as one of its major exports. So it links back to the page on coffee, referencing, "for more on coffee, see page 42).

Tim Horton’s, on page 249, shows up in the index under "Coffee," because coffee is their #1 seller (don’t ask us what Encyclopedia this is that has Coffee, Columbia and Tim Horton’s in it, but it’s the Encyclopedia we need).

Creating Links to Your Website for SEO

If you go to the Tim Horton’s page on 249, you’ll see that when it mentions “coffee” it says, “see page 42.”

These pages create a web that lead you back to page 42 every time.

Think of your website as “page 42.” You need other ways to link to it, from outside, or, off your website page(s).

You can do this using social media. Link to your website in your social media bio and in your posts (where a link is possible).

This tells search engines that your website is trustworthy and improves your search engine ranking. It helps to further validate your website.

This idea is called back-linking, and if you want to go more in depth with learning about this and other ways you can implement it, we have a video here.

So now that you understand a little bit more about what SEO does, you can safely tuck your encyclopedia away and grab your coffee.

What search engine optimization tactic are you going to try first? Start today. Start here.

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