SEO Basics: What All Marketing Decision-Makers Need to Know

White hat and black hat SEO illustration

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of improving your website to increase your organic site traffic. Start here for the basics.

Should you invest in SEO? Absolutely.

A properly executed SEO strategy strengthens your brand and improves the user experience. In today's digital-first environment, SEO is an essential component of any integrated marketing program.

The cause-and-effect relationship goes something like this:

You optimize your site for accessibility and usability and publish user-friendly content.

Search engines (looking at you, Google and Bing) smile upon your site which is more likely to appear, or “rank”, in search results.

Increased visibility leads to more organic web traffic.

And, ultimately, to more business.

Before taking on this work, set your expectations. SEO is a complex discipline that requires a strong, long-term commitment to research, strategy, and developing quality content. While some initial tasks are once and done, SEO—and the content development it requires—is an ongoing effort.

The most significant investment is time. This work often requires an experienced SEO specialist or web developer, but the basics can be covered by anyone with the bandwidth, writing talent, and willingness to learn. Whether you choose to address SEO in-house or in partnership with a local SEO agency, understand that it is not a quick fix for your website's performance woes.

If you're not yet convinced about the value of SEO, Search Engine Journal has compiled a list of 12 Reasons Why Your Business Absolutely Needs SEO.

Use paid search to complement organic efforts.

Just to be clear, this article focuses on SEO; organic techniques to increase your site's ranking on SERP. You can supplement your organic efforts with SEM (search engine marketing), an investment of advertising budget to achieve prominent positioning on search engine results pages. SEM is generally equated with paid search advertising, aka pay-per-click (PPC), such as Google search ads.

SEO can get very jargon-y very quickly.

Commit these terms to memory:

On-page SEO
focused on the content on your site; how well it is optimized for keywords and the user experience it provides
Technical SEO
focused on how well search engine bots can crawl and index your site
Off-page SEO
focused on factors external to your site which may not be fully in your control; primarily backlinks, but also social reputation, user search history, etc.
White hat SEO
ethical, above-board optimization techniques (this article only shares white hat practices)
Black hat SEO
techniques that violate the search engines’ terms of service or try to game the system; result in penalties
Gray hat SEO
techniques that are riskier but may not result in penalties because the terms of service are unclear
Search engine results pages (SERP)
the page you see after conducting a search
SERP feature
any result on a Google SERP that is not a traditional organic result, e.g., rich snippets, paid results, knowledge graph
Ranking factor
variable applied by search engine algorithms when evaluating web pages to determine the order of search results
what you're targeting; word that best describes the content of your page or post
what the user types into the search bar
consists of two or more keywords; but marketers often just use "keyword" as a catch-all

We're going to use "keyword" for the sake of simplicity in this article, but if you want to nerd out about search queries vs keyword, be our guest.

Learn the lingo to avoid those "it's all Greek to me" moments with SEMrush's comprehensive SEO glossary.

Beware black hat SEO!

It might work if you're running a get-rich-quick scheme, but it's more likely to backfire and result in your site getting de-indexed or on the last page. Don't risk Google's wrath. Keep the white hat on and your users will thank you.

Strategic, user-friendly content attracts and engages audiences.

Above all, write for your users, not search engine bots. Although it's a fairly technical discipline, SEO is really about people. If you post meaningful content that engages, entertains, or informs your audience, the search engines will reward you with more, or more qualified, traffic.

When publishing content, be sure to:

  • Develop a keyword strategy
  • Write keyword-rich pages but don't overdo it to the point where you've ruined the flow ("keyword stuffing")
  • Make sure hyperlinks are easy-to-spot and do not use generic language
  • Include internal links to other pages on your site, e.g., valuable older content that is still relevant
  • Use (and appropriately nest) heading tags to emphasize important text
  • Write meta titles and meta descriptions that are brief but compelling summaries of page content to encourage click-throughs from SERPs
  • Use contextual keywords in permalinks (page URLs), files names, and image alt text
  • Regularly publish fresh, unique content such as blogs or news articles

Don’t forget, SEO best practices go hand in hand with accessibility.

Inbound links from reputable and relevant sites establish authority.

Google's ranking algorithm is guarded down in the vault along with KFC's 11 herbs and spices. But we know that Google looks at inbound links from other reputable sites as “votes of confidence” for the validity of your site.

This means inbound links, a.k.a. backlinks, are a great way to enhance SEO, but they are also more difficult to get and require strong enough content to get the attention of other sites that will link to your own.

  • Design shareable visuals, e.g. infographics
  • Volunteer your expertise for journalists, podcasters, etc. (but watch out—paid guest blogging is a no-no)
  • Reach out to likely linkers

Learn more about building a network of high-quality inbound links while keeping your white hat nice and bright at Backlinko's Link Building for SEO guide.

Technical SEO content improvements help search bots find, crawl, and understand your site.

Many technical SEO tasks require a programmer, but some can be done by anyone with access to the website's content management system. Content managers can:

  • Disavow spammy backlinks
  • Remove duplicate content
  • Audit redirects and check for broken links
  • Organize the site navigation hierarchy and establish content clusters for easy-to-find content
  • Evaluate server performance

Is your website infrastructure supporting you like it should be? Enlist a programmer to help with the backend tasks such as SSL certificate, page speed, and structured data.

To dive into the deep end, check out Hubspot's Ultimate Guide to Technical SEO.

Free resources are available for your SEO toolbox.

We recommend enlisting these tools to up your SEO game:

Research keywords and rankings
Review quality of inbound links
MOZ Link Explorer
Get readability recommendationsHemingway Editor
Get SEO suggestions on your content in WordPressYoast SEO plugin for WordPress
Get suggestions to make pages fasterGoogle PageSpeed Insights
Test how easy your page is to use on a mobile deviceGoogle Mobile-Friendly Test
Understand how Google Search sees your pages
Review search queries that brought users to your site
Google Search Console
Get structured data assistanceGoogle Rich Results Test Vocabulary Glossary
Google Structured Data Testing Tool
Google Markup Helper
Audit accessibility WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool
WebAIM Contrast Checker
Broken Link Checker
Manage local SEO through business listingsGoogle My Business
Apple Maps
Bing Places
Get PPC bid estimatesGoogle Keyword Planner

In this case, don’t just Google it.

Two users can search for the same query on the same search engine and see totally different results. That's because search engines customize the experience based on many factors, such as the user's physical location, browsing history, and social settings. So please, for the love of SEO consultants everywhere, please don't "just Google it" to "see where we rank" if you want accurate results. Instead, try free tools such as MOZ Link Explorer and Ubersuggest.

We love chatting all things SEO, web development, and content marketing. Contact Ivy Group to pick our SEO consultants' brains or get started on an SEO audit.