When I first launched this website, I didn’t even want to think about SEO and SERP. It seemed like this big, scary, two-headed monstrosity — one I would never understand — lurking in the corner, just waiting to pull me into a virtual abyss.

But…reality. If you ignore SEO and SERP, the world will ignore your website. Because it’s Google’s game — and it’s by invitation only.

So I decided to conquer my SEO and SERP phobia. What I’ve learned is that, yes, this whole process is a bit overwhelming. And always changing. (And, honestly, kind of boring.)

I’ve also realized that I’m never going to have enough time to spend hours reaching out to influencers, commenting on random blog posts, or experimenting with any of the other “advanced” SEO tactics.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go all-out to make an impact. Employing even the most basic SEO tactics is better than using none at all. And that’s what this post is all about.

So I’m going to define a few terms and teach you some common-sense strategies you can implement right now, so that, even if you never get to the “SEO PhD” level, you’ll already be way ahead of just about everybody else.

What are SEO and SERP?

SEO stands for “Search Engine Optimization.”

SERP stands for “Search Engine Results Page.”

The magic happens when you combine the two, using SEO  techniques to increase the chances of your site showing up near the top of the results page when somebody conducts a search.

Why are SEO and SERP so important?

Because we’re lazy: We go for the low-handing fruit almost every single time.

About 30% of the people who conduct a search will click on the first result. By the third listing, the click-through rate drops off to 12%. And if you’re not even on the first page, you might as well not exist, because most people don’t make it that far. And the more paid ads Google puts at the top of the page, the more likely you are to get bumped off.

How can you convince Google to list you higher in SERP rankings?

To say that it’s complicated would be a huge understatement. Google uses extremely complex algorithms, and they’re always tweaking them.

It’s more practical to think in terms of what Google is trying to accomplish, which is to remain the world’s favorite search engine by delivering quality results. So Google’s algorithms analyze every aspect of your site, looking for clues that it’s of high enough quality to deserve Google’s seal of approval.

There are whole books on how to nab one of those top SERP spots. But we’re going to stay away from the expert-level stuff and focus on some simple things you can do right now.

Easy fixes

URL

When you publish a blog post, your URL should include your most important keyword, preferably right after the .com/ part. On most platforms, the URL is generated automatically from the headline, but you can go in and change it.

But don’t get carried away — Google prefers short URLs to long ones.

One more hint: Customize the URL before you send the link out to everyone, or you’ll wind up with broken links.

Title tag

The title tag is the HTML code that explicitly proclaims to Google (and anyone else who happens to be looking) that “Hey! Over here! This is what this page is about!” Because Google assumes that surely you’re smart enough to include your keyword(s) in your title tag, not doing so can push you farther down the results page.

Let’s say you write a blog post on Thanksgiving recipes. You can have “Thanksgiving recipes” prominently featured in your headline and sprinkled throughout your content — but if “Thanksgiving recipes” isn’t in your title tag (or URL), Google is going to conclude that it doesn’t have very much to do with Thanksgiving recipes.

Meta descriptions

Like title tags, meta descriptions are road signs that offer a concise summary of what the page is about. They’re the little “snippets” that show up in the search results.

While Google has said that meta descriptions don’t affect SERP rankings, they do affect click-through rates — and click-through rates affect search engine rankings. Your meta description should include your keyword(s) and be engaging enough to get the reader to take the next step of clicking through to your content.

Outbound links

As the name suggests, outbound links are links from your site to other sites. Google takes them as a sign of authority — which basically means they think you take your work seriously enough to do outside research and aren’t just making up a bunch of keyword-stuffed garbage. And it’s somewhat of a popularity contest: The higher the authority of the sites you link to, the more credit you get for linking to them.

If you’re writing about workplace safety, for example, it would be better to link to OSHA than to a tiny little construction company that just got hit with some big fines and wants to give everybody else a heads-up.

Length

Once upon a time, urban legend insisted that the ideal blog post length was 500 words. And you’ll still run into that misconception.

But the actual numbers tell a different story. Longer content performs better when it comes to SERP. In fact, the average length for results that make it to the first page is 1,890 words.

Again, it’s about authority. Google gives you more credit for covering a topic in-depth than just skimming over it the same way 1,000 other people have already done.

Images

Everyone knows that images are critical for reader engagement. However, a lot of people don’t realize that images are also important for SEO.

The file name of the image should contain your primary keyword(s). So should the alt-text, the text that appears if your image doesn’t load properly. Including the keyword(s) in your images is another sign to Google that your content really is about what you say it’s about.

Keyword placement

Did you ever have someone launch into a big, convoluted story without providing any context? So that, even if they included lots of details, you were still lost as to why they were telling you the story in the first place?

Google is no different. They think that, if you don’t lead with it, it’s not important — so put your primary keyword(s) early in your post, preferably within the first 100 words.

Internal links

Internal links are those that take readers from one page of your website to another page on the same site. One of the most common uses for internal links is to link one blog post to other posts on related topics.

There are a couple of ways internal links can improve your SERP. For one thing, they keep readers on your site longer, and Google takes that as an important sign of quality: The more time people spend on your site, in Google’s mind, the better your site must be. Internal links also make it easier for Google’s spiders to find your important content. (Think of it as traveling a paved road rather than hacking your way through the underbrush.)

Internal links are also important for social proof. If you want the reader to stop what they’re currently doing to go to another page on your site, that page must be pretty dang good, right?

If you haven’t been doing this, you can do it right now. Just go back through all of your blog posts and, where it makes sense (because of relevance), add a link. You may even want to do it in both directions, which is something a lot of people overlook when they publish a new blog post: Are there any older posts that should link to the new one?

“Next step” fixes

That’s it for the quick hits. These take a little more time and are outside the scope of this post, but they do pack a strong punch and are therefore worth a mention. I’ve included links to resources where you can learn more.

Backlinks

A backlink is when someone else links to your site from their own. And Google takes them very seriously — in fact, some experts consider backlinks to be the single most important factor in SERP rankings. After all, if other sites trust you enough to link to you, then Google might as well trust you, too. There are things you can do to encourage other sites to link to yours, but, for now, let’s focus on quality. The better your content is, the more likely it is that someone will link to it.

What are backlinks, and why are they so important for SEO?

4 effective ways to build backlinks for a brand new site

17 untapped backlink resources

Link-building tactics

Responsive design

We’ve already passed the tipping point where more people are connecting to the internet via their mobile devices than from laptops or desktops. Since that trend isn’t expected to reverse any time soon, Google is engaging in a bit of behavior modification: They’re trying to persuade websites to design for mobile by using that as a factor in SERP rankings.

If your website isn’t responsive — meaning that it doesn’t adapt itself to whatever device the reader is using — you won’t get those coveted SERP top spots. There are tons of easy-to-use, mobile-responsive themes (templates) out there, so, if you haven’t revamped your site in the last few years, move this one up to the top of your list. If you’re not sure whether your site is responsive, Google’s got a handy little tool you can use to analyze it.

The web in 2016: Long live responsive design

Responsive design and its impact on SEO

Why responsive design is more important than ever

Site load speed

Google doesn’t want to refer people to your site only to have them sit there watching the little beach ball spin around while your site tries to load. Because of their focus on quality, Google ranks pages that load quickly higher than slower pages.

Again, Google’s got a tool for that. If your site is slow, that same tool will guide you through speeding things up.

Page speed and SEO

Using a CDN to improve your load speed

Page speed: How it affects your SEO and how to improve it

Bounce rate/time on site

Have you ever conducted a search, clicked on one of the results, realized that it wasn’t at all what you were looking for, and quickly hit the “back” button? That’s a bounce, and it sends Google a pretty strong message that your site doesn’t deserve to be at the top of that particular keyword’s SERP rankings.

9 reasons your website can have a high bounce rate

14 ways to reduce your site’s bounce rates

How to reduce your site’s bounce rate (infographic)

LSI keywords

LSI stands for Latent Semantic Indexing, and it started as Google’s response to keyword stuffing (which was great for SERP rankings but highly annoying to readers). In a nutshell, it’s about context and synonyms.

Including words that are synonyms for your primary keyword or that are otherwise related to it reassures Google that the page really is about what you say it’s about. Let’s say your keyword is “apple.” If you also include words like, “banana,” “cinnamon,” and “recipes,” Google will conclude that you’re talking about the fruit rather than the technology behemoth.

And the more confident Google feels about your site, the higher it will rank you.

LSI keyword generator

LSI keywords

 

Every now and then you hear rumors that SEO is dead. Personally, I have trouble imagining a time when SEO and SERP are no longer important. But I’m equally as sure that Google will keep tweaking the algorithms that hold the SEO universe together. People figure out how to game the system, so Google changes the rules. Or a new trend or technology emerges, and Google seizes the opportunity to nudge people in the direction they want them to go.

But even if you can’t keep track of all of the particulars, there’s a lot of benefit in simply remembering what Google focuses on: quality and user experience. Google wants high-quality content that’s easy to navigate and really is about what it claims to be about. The more clues you can give Google that you fit the bill, the better off you — and your business — will be.

Still feel like the proverbial babe in the woods when it comes to content marketing? That’s OK — everybody did at some point. Check out the “For content beginners” section of my blog for more Content 101 pointers, or sign up below to get updates sent straight to your inbox.