What is SEO (Search Engine Optimization)?

SEO comes from the English phrase: Search Engine Optimisation – and it means “Search Engine Optimisation” (yes, it seems that in Romanian, all phrases are longer).

If you’ve built and launched a website or work for a client or company that would like to make its presence felt on the internet, you’ve no doubt heard phrases like, “You won’t be successful without SEO!” or “No SEO, no traffic and no traffic, no sales!”

Leaving aside the fact that the phrase “SEO optimization” is a pleonasm, phrases like that either leave you cold or make you panic:

What do you mean, I have a beautiful website, I’ve spent weeks working on the web design, the logo, the pictures, the layout, and you mean no one will come to visit it?

Yes and no!

The definition of SEO is:

Efforts to build and modify a website to drive an increase in the quantity and quality of traffic to that website from search engines.

Everyone wants to be famous on the internet, on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and so on. But if you have a website, you want to be famous on Google in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, we can say that Google has a monopoly on the search engine market. And to be famous on Google, you need to first identify who the ideal audience for your website is and give that audience what they are looking for. Simple! Who do you want to visit?

Once you’ve identified your target audience, you need to put yourself in their shoes and find out what searches these visitors would perform in Google, what phrases (or keywords) these potential visitors would type into the search engine to find what you offer.

Once you’ve identified your keywords, all you have to do is attract this traffic to you: undertake various activities that will make Google (or other search engines) rank you higher among all the other results.

These activities come together in what we call ‘search engine optimisation’ or SEO.

Types of search engine results

Before continuing, we need to distinguish between the types of results that can appear in search engines.

In the search results pages of Google and other engines, there are:

  1. sponsored results
  2. organic (unpaid) results

Sponsored results

If you’re just starting out and your site isn’t showing up in Google yet, or it’s showing up low and no one can see you, you may want to pay to appear in the results.

This involves having an advertising budget that you can spend on this, setting up a Google AdWords account, bidding on the keywords you want and creating a small, attractive ad copy.

Your ad will start appearing when potential customers perform searches that include the keywords you bid on. You pay when someone clicks through to your site. Depending on the words you choose and the domain you operate in, the cost may be lower or higher per click.

Google is very happy to take your money in exchange for a few views and clicks from potential customers. The more you pay, the higher you appear and the more potential customers will reach your site. These are paid or sponsored results.

Organic results

The second way to appear in Google is through organic positioning – that is, without paying, naturally.

How do you achieve this? Well, that’s what SEO is all about.

Your website is indexed by Google, which determines what your pages are about and what keywords you should appear for in searches. If your site is of high quality, the content is useful and visitors spend time on your site, then Google starts to rank it higher too, without you having to pay.

All the SEO industry’s efforts go towards this kind of ranking: trying to find out what Google is looking for in a quality website, what keywords potential visitors are looking for, and which website is the most relevant to show in the top positions for those searches (your website, hopefully).

If you have a website on which you sell shoes, then you want people interested in buying shoes to visit. It doesn’t help you to optimize or publish articles about car repairs on your site! Maybe those articles will generate traffic, but that traffic is not quality traffic, because those people are interested in something else entirely and will leave immediately.

In this situation, lots of traffic is not a good thing. Google has ways of determining when your site isn’t meeting the needs of your visitors and before long your site will drop down in the results.

In the following we’ll spend a little time looking at the main SEO issues that if we start implementing, we’re sure to raise your site’s search engine rankings.

What are the main steps in search engine optimization?

We should mention at the outset: some of the things we will discuss can be done quickly, with relatively immediate results, and others are long-term activities that require sustained work over long periods, especially if you have a website with a brand new web domain.

  1. Your website needs to be accessible and easily indexed by search engines.
  2. Effective titles, keywords and meta descriptions for high click-through rates in the results.
  3. Website content should be useful, of exceptional quality and responsive to visitor needs or searches. This type of content attracts links from other sites, lots of shares and likes on social media.
  4. Keywords on pages optimised for searchers as well as search engines.
  5. A good website browsing experience: fast loading speed, ease of use, few distractions and an efficient and well-organised interface.
  6. Formatting and semantic elements to stand out in results.

The order of the above steps is not random. Notice that each step builds on the previous step more or less.

For example, if your website can’t be indexed by search engines, you won’t show up in Google at all, so the chances of visitors finding it are zero.

If the site is indexed, but the meta titles that appear in the results are not interesting enough to give the expectation that they might respond to the user’s search, no one will click on them.

If the user clicks and visits the site but the page is almost empty or the content found on it is disappointing, the visitor will immediately go back to the results page and choose another site.

If the visitor still came to the website and the content seems useful but the site is slow to load, disorganised, full of ads or the text is small and hard to read, the visitor’s experience will be negative and they will leave the site.

These are just examples, but they illustrate that these days, it’s no longer enough to just publish a few pages on the web, fill them with repetitive, low-quality text and be successful. Google’s stated goal is to give searchers the most relevant page possible for their search. If your web page doesn’t fulfill its reason for existence, it will soon be pushed aside.

Let’s take each step in turn and see what it is, what you should do and how, to improve the relevance of your website:

The site must be accessible and easy to index – SEO

You’ve probably noticed that when you do a Google search, the results appear almost instantly. Not only that, but the total number of results is displayed, as well as a ridiculously short time in which the search was performed:

how to optimize a website

Surely Google didn’t search the entire internet in less than a second!

So for your website to appear in the results, it must first be included in the search engine index.

Google and other search engines have little progammes called spiders/crawlers, which constantly browse the internet, page by page, download pages, analyse their content and finally decide whether to include them in the index or not.

When you perform a search, the results you see come from this index. Therefore, the results you see do not reflect the newest version of your site, but the latest version stored in the search engine index.

These spiders regularly visit the site and update the index. Depending on the size, reputation and purpose of your site, Google may visit your site more often or less often and changes are reflected in the index depending on how often.

Let it be known that you have launched your website

The first step in SEO is to somehow let Google know that you’ve launched your site. If Google doesn’t know the site exists, it won’t send bots to visit it, so at some point it has to find out about your site. This can happen either from newly registered web domain registries, from links posted by you or someone else on other sites, social media, etc.

If you want to speed up this process, you can register a free Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) account, where you can add your site and let Google know you have a site.

Also in Google Search Console, you can monitor when Google starts indexing your site, how many pages it has found, what keywords you appear with in the search engine, where you rank and what traffic you get from Google. It’s a very useful tool and with it you’ll always be informed if your SEO efforts are successful and heading in the right direction.

The second important aspect in indexing your site is to make sure that your site is easy to navigate and download. If the site gives errors, has broken pages or broken links, it will be harder or impossible to navigate and index. These will only slow down indexing and if the errors persist, may even cause removal from the index.

When Google’s crawler notices that the site is slow to respond or gives errors, it will slow down the indexing rate, and if the problems persist, it may drop it altogether.

Effective titles, keywords and meta descriptions for high click-through rates.

Well, now that the site is on the server, easy to index and error-free, it’s time to think about the content of the pages, and more specifically, the titles, descriptions and meta keywords.

The meta content of web pages (titles, description and keywords) are not visible on the page itself, but they exist in the HTML code of the page and appear in the list of search engine results. Here is an example:

men's shoes

The titles in blue and the description underneath are meta fields that come from your website. These titles are the links you click on to get to your site. At this point in the search, your site looks the same as every other site on the internet – a blue title and a small description with grey.

So you can see how important the title and meta description are: depending on them, the visitor decides whether to click through and come to your site or not.

From the few seconds the searcher scans the page, you have a fraction of a second to convince him/her that your site carries the answer to his/her question or search. That’s why it’s important in SEO to have titles that are interesting, to the point and reflect the reality of what’s on the page.

The meta title is probably the most important tag on your page – it, along with the visible title on the page in the H1 tag, are the first places Google looks to find out what your page is about, what the topic is and what keywords you are trying to rank your page with in the search engine.

Recommended parameters for meta tags:

The meta title is a concise description of the page (around 60 characters). It is important that it contains the main keyword(s), perhaps secondary keywords and the name of the company or website.

Example: 3 bedroom apartments – Modern housing in Brasov | My company

Meta description: A short summary of the page, around 150-160 characters. Usually Google will pick up this description and display it below the result, but it’s not a guarantee. If this tag is missing or doesn’t seem relevant, Google may choose a snippet from the rest of the page to include instead.

Although Google announced in 2009 that it no longer takes these descriptions and meta keywords into account when determining the rank/position of a page, they can still influence the visitor.

If the description visible in the search engine is interesting enough and close enough to the intent of the search, visitors will choose to visit your site, so it is useful to try to create a description that is as relevant as possible.

Meta keywords: As mentioned, Google no longer uses on-page meta keywords in determining site rank.

The main reason for this is that in the early days, when Google only considered on-page factors in its calculations, keywords were a place where you could very easily insert many keywords, often completely irrelevant to the content of the page, in order to influence the search engine ranking.

This spamming practice has been eradicated. Google no longer takes these keywords into account at all, but has turned its attention to other factors (many of them external to the site) to determine the relevance and authority of pages.

The content of the site must be of exceptional quality – SEO

It doesn’t help anyone to lure a visitor with an attractive title and a descriptive tag in the search engine that promises the sea with salt, if when the person lands on the site, they don’t find what they are looking for. Or what he does find is of very poor quality, short and he has just wasted a few seconds, which will make him click the back button.

Google sees that the person has returned to the results and concludes that maybe your page isn’t the best one to offer for that search. And that’s when your site starts dropping in the results.

It’s very important to do your best to provide answers to visitors’ questions, describe the subject of the page as well as possible and leave no stone unturned.

Leave no question unanswered, no statement unargued and no objection unclarified. That way, the people who visit your site will solve their problem, find out everything there is to know about what they are looking for and, if you have convinced them, perhaps they will become your customer or tell others about your site.

Keywords in pages optimised for searchers and search engines

I said above that the title and meta description are important for when the visitor sees the results in the search engine. There are a lot of factors in determining relevancy, but for your site to appear alongside (or above) other sites, a lot of the content on the page matters.

Search engines don’t just index the page title, they index every word and paragraph in your article, text, blog post or anything else you have on your site.

For this reason, you need to give the bot some raw material to chew on. The text on the page should discuss the given topic in as much detail as possible, as mentioned above, but the words used in the text should contain or be similar to those in the meta title and the title included on the page (H1).

This will give the search engine to understand that indeed, the topic mentioned in the title is the topic discussed in the rest of the page. If the body of your article does not match or is totally different from what you promised in the headline (and other pages of the site), it may be considered spam.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll repeat keywords endlessly on the page in every sentence. Such a practice used many years ago is very obvious as search engine spam, is severely punished and is downright annoying for the visitor.

The tip to remember is to write the content of your site for the visitor, to answer their questions, but also to sprinkle the keywords you want to appear in the results naturally into the text at a reasonable frequency.

A good way to do this is by including relevant keywords in the subheadings on the page (H2-H6) and in quotes, with bold, etc. This helps the search engine understand what words and phrases are important to you in the article, and if they match the title and the intent of the visitor’s search, it will help your rankings.

Don’t forget logical structuring and page layout as pleasing as possible:

  • If you have a longer article, don’t include long paragraphs. Break large paragraphs into shorter ones of 2-3 sentences to make them easy to read. Try to read each paragraph in one breath. Can you do it? If not, it’s too long.
  • Structure the article into sections, delimiting them with subheadings and other elements that separate paragraphs.
  • Include phrases or keywords in bold to draw attention to them. Visitors usually don’t read much, but scan the text. You can interrupt their gaze with small phrases in bold.
  • If it lends itself to the article, sprinkle in a few images, tables, charts, videos and other elements that can break up the monotony and capture the reader’s attention.
  • Where relevant, include links to other articles or pages on the site that discuss the topics in more depth, or provide additional information.

Implementing these tips will cause the visitor to spend more time on your page, capture their attention, and even cause them to visit other pages on your site.

These things will give Google the signal that the visitor really found what they were looking for (relevance), didn’t jump straight back to another result (bounce), visited other pages (spent time, so the rest of the site is interesting), and so on.

If the visitor also shared the link on a social network or included a link to your page on their blog, you’ve won! All of these actions are signals to the search engines that the decision to display your site in the results was correct.

A good website browsing experience: fast loading speed, ease of use, few distractions and an efficient and well-organised interface.

These actions fall into the category of ‘technical’ optimisation – here you are almost entirely in control. Whereas you can’t control where Google ranks you or when the bot will come to index your site, in technical SEO you have full control to optimise and improve your site to make it very user-friendly:

Site loading speed

It all starts with choosing a great hosting service. If your host has slow servers, your site will suffer – it will load slowly and/or display errors. Often, on cheap hosting services, you’re not alone on a server, you’re sharing a server with dozens, maybe hundreds of other sites. Usually, the cheaper a hosting subscription, the poorer the quality.

Also, if the server where you host your site is far away (in another country or maybe even overseas), the loading speed will be affected. It takes quite a long time for information to travel across (or under) the ocean! Your website should be hosted as close as possible to your target audience. If you have a website for Romanians, host it in Romania, or at least in Europe!

Another way to speed up a site is to use a CDN (Content Delivery Network) – to serve static content (images, scripts) from a location close to your audience.

Few distractions of SEO

Don’t include too many ads, banners on your site. Think about the experience you’d like to have when visiting other sites.

If as soon as the visitor arrives at your site, instead of allowing them to read or inspect the page, you slam a pop-up with ads or a newsletter sign-up form in their face, you’re not giving them a pleasant experience.

Not all visitors have powerful computers with thousands of pixels on the screen and i7 processors. Some browse from slow, small, cramped-screen tablets. If visiting your site is the equivalent of an obstacle course, think again.

Any distracting elements are only meant to alienate the visitor or shorten their visit.

Maintain an optimal balance between content and advertising elements or distractions.

Efficient and well-organised interface

Use clear, easy-to-understand and well-organised navigation to guide visitors through the site. Yes, it’s “cool” to have a menu that flies out of a corner, with an ultra-cheesy animation that flips three times and becomes a mega menu, but does it really add a valuable bonus, or is it just showing off?

When in doubt about which menu and special effects to use, go for simplicity and practicality. Google can’t see animations or pretty pictures. Visitors who found you in Google didn’t come to see how well you know how to juggle CSS but for the content and information you promise.

Visitor attention is dwindling year by year. If in 3 seconds you haven’t fulfilled your promise in the search engine, the visitor is gone.

If you have an e-commerce website, prioritize product presentation, as much information as possible about the properties of the products and clear organization of categories so visitors can quickly find what they are looking for.

You don’t have to be a detective to find what you’re looking for on a site, no matter what page you “landed” on from search engines.

Use elements in a conventional way, rather: links in a different colour than the text, menus at the top, logo in the corner, easy-to-access buttons on price type and screen size.

Formatting and semantic elements (structured data) to stand out in the results

Structured Data are certain formats (JSON LD or by which we can improve the structure of the information presented on our website.

Normally, Google visits your website, downloads the pages and tries to understand what it is about, by analysing the words on the page, the titles, the order of the content and so on.

Well, using structured data, we can “help” the search engine understand what we have on the page.

For example, if you have a recipe site, you can put information on the page using structured data, to let search engines know that the page is actually a recipe.

This way, Google can get more information and format search results differently to help visitors understand what your page is about before they even visit it.

Here’s an example of a Google result for recipes below:

spaghetti recipe

While it’s not guaranteed that Google will create such an enhanced mode for your pages, here’s what extra information they provide for this type of listing: a photo, a note, how long it takes to cook the recipe in question, and so on.

If you have an e-commerce site, before you include structured data, Google doesn’t know which pages are categories, which are products, etc. Once you add this data, it will make this distinction.