A guide to search engine optimisation for your business website
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is important for any business looking to build a successful digital presence, whether to conduct business via e-commerce or drive growth through digital channels. Understanding how SEO works can have a number of benefits for a business, especially for new businesses or local businesses looking to grow.
What is SEO?
Search engines such as Google, whose various services account for over 90% of global search traffic (Kemp 2021), use highly complex, highly secretive algorithms to ‘crawl’ websites and determine which sites to show in response to a search query and in what order they appear on the search engine results page (SERP). This ranking is known as organic search. Search engine optimisation is the process of ensuring that your website is providing the right cues to let search algorithms know that your content is relevant to what a user is searching for.
Why is SEO important?
SEO is important because good SEO improves the chances of your website appearing in results of searches relevant to your business. It can also improve the position and appearance of your website on a SERP, which is important when you consider that not only do less than 1% of users click on results beyond the first page of a Google search, but the first three positions on a search result page account for 75% of all click-throughs from the page.
If this isn’t enough to show why SEO is important, consider the cost-saving implications. While it is possible to buy space on a Google SERP (known as paid search), it is often far more effective for a new business to focus on getting the most out of organic search. Paid search requires a committed budget in order to run an effective campaign, and even successful, well-managed paid search results generate significantly fewer clicks than organic search results. According to Fishkin (2017), 66% of Google searches result in a click on organic search results, whereas only 2.6% of searches result in a click on paid search.
So, simply put, SEO offers a relatively low-cost, accessible means of promoting your business and ensuring you can get found by the right customers.
That said, while there is no fool-proof way of guaranteeing your position on Google’s first page, there are several key areas of a website that you should focus on to understand how SEO works and how to implement it.
How SEO works
Tags and metadata
Although search algorithms are increasingly capable of interpreting more and more complex factors in order to determine a website’s relevance, your title tag, meta description tag and H1 tag are still important means of highlighting a website’s content and signalling its value to potential searchers.
Together, the title and meta description tags are responsible for how your website appears on a SERP. The name of your company, your key offerings and a user-friendly description or introduction to your business should all be featured in these tags (see our SEO checklist for more details).
The H1 tag is the first thing a search algorithm will ‘see’ when landing on your page. The purpose of the tag is essentially to tell customers who land on your page what your website is about, and search engines will evaluate the content on your site against the content contained in the H1 tag to determine the relevance of your site.
For example, a contractor’s website may include the term ‘home renovations’ in the H1 tag. Google therefore knows to evaluate the rest of the content on the site in terms of whether it is relevant to this term.
Image alt tags are a clever way of reinforcing your site’s relevance without impacting usability or readability of your content. Google’s algorithm can’t see images (yet), so an image alt tag is a string of text that describes an image to a search engine, allowing the images on your site to be included, determining the relevance of your content. For example, an image of a building site on our contractor’s website in the above example may use the image alt tag ‘home renovation project by Company Contractors’.
XML sitemaps and canonicals
Google doesn’t like surprises, so including an XML sitemap in your website’s code is an effective way of helping the algorithm to understand the layout of your site and the links between the various pages on your site, meaning it can crawl and evaluate your site more effectively.
The one thing that Google likes even less than surprises is duplicate content. This is especially relevant for sites with multiple redirects and domains linking to a single page. By including a canonical tag on a page, you’re indicating to search engines that this is the version of the page that should feature in search results, allowing it to disregard other versions of the page displaying the same content.
To illustrate using our example above, customers may be able to access Contractor Company’s homepage using any of the following URLS:
To avoid Google treating each of these as a separate page, a canonical tag should be included on one version to indicate that it is the ‘master’ version of the page.
Structured data are a series of tags used to classify website content. There is a standard set of formats for structured data that can be used to markup individual pieces of content on a website. Google uses structured data to enrich its SERP, and it can be a powerful tool for customising your website’s SERP appearance and letting customers know what your business offers before they even click through to your page.
Authority is a critical factor for determining rankings on a SERP, and links to and from websites are one of the biggest indicators search engines use to determine a website’s authority. The more links to a site from others about a specific topic, the greater that site’s authority.
Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to get others to link to your website, although digital marketing and content strategies can make it more likely that this will happen. The process doesn’t work in reverse either, so it’s not possible to build your own site’s authority by linking to more authoritative sites. Links to external sites can, however, assist in improving your site’s relevance. Links between pages on your own website, on the other hand, improve your site’s crawlability as well as its authority for certain search terms. When building links on your website, it is important to consider the text used for the link and align this with the keywords you are trying to rank for.
Keyword strategy and content optimisation
SEO should start with a detailed keyword strategy focusing on a few key phrases that are relevant to your business and that customers will potentially be searching for. This will allow you to effectively populate the relevant tags on your website for launch. Competitor research, gap analysis and campaign planning can all help to determine which keywords to focus on, and close monitoring of your website’s performance will allow you to refine or revise these terms on an ongoing basis.
In terms of website content, first and foremost it should be aligned to your keyword strategy as this will add to your website’s overall quality score. Keywords should be used in your website content naturally and logically, to avoid being penalised for what is known as “keyword stuffing”. Keyword stuffing includes adding large amounts of superfluous information to boost a website’s ranking for a particular term or repeating a keyword or phrase in a website’s content to such a degree that it sounds unnatural.
Regular, focused content updates will improve your site’s ranking as content that is regularly updated will likely be determined to be more relevant than static content. Providing high-quality, regular content updates such as blog posts or news articles also increases your opportunities to target keywords and search terms, build internal links and potentially receive links from other sites.
Adding location data and listing information with Google can have huge benefits for businesses. Not only has there been an increase of approximately 900% in ‘local’ searches using terms such as ‘…near me’ since 2016 (Chatmeter 2018), but these local searches have proven to provide great returns for businesses, particularly from searches done via mobile phones. According to Kemp (2021), 94% of South Africans currently use mobile phones to access the internet.
Your website has a better chance of being deemed relevant to local searches if Google knows your opening hours, which areas you operate in and other information that may be relevant to a customer searching, for example ‘home renovations near me’.
Site speed and mobile-friendly websites
If a page takes too long to load, it can have a negative impact on your website’s search ranking. Images, in particular, can significantly increase page loading times, so ensuring all images on your site are optimised for web is critical.
With the increase in mobile internet use worldwide, Google has begun to place increasing importance on the performance of websites on mobile platforms. Whereas in the past, a website may have had a version specifically designed to be viewed on mobile devices, creating separate versions for web and mobile today is likely to have a negative impact on a website’s search ranking. The best approach is to ensure that a site is responsive, meaning it can automatically adapt to provide the best user experience no matter what platform it is viewed on.
Tracking and analytics
Google Search Console is a powerful tool and can provide great insight into a website’s search performance, ranking, keyword strategy and more. Launching a website with Google Search Console tagging in place allows a business to start monitoring and optimising search performance from the outset. It also allows a business to quickly identify and fix any technical issues that may be preventing Google from properly indexing their website.
Chatmeter. 2018. ‘50 Local SEO Stats Every Marketer Should Know – 2018’. [Online] Available: https://www.chatmeter.com/blog/50-local-seo-stats-every-marketer-should-know-2018/ (Accessed 8 July 2021).
Fishkin, R. 2017. ‘The State of Searcher Behavior Revealed Through 23 Remarkable Statistics’. [Online] Available: https://moz.com/blog/state-of-searcher-behavior-revealed (Accessed 9 July 2021).
Kemp, S. 2021. ‘Digital 2021 Global Digital Overview’. [Online] Available: https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-global-overview-report(Accessed 8 July 2021).