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The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide to SEO

Improve your search engine rankings with SEO. Learn actionable techniques for search engine optimization, content marketing, and link building.

What's the first thing you do when you have a problem, need, or challenge?

You Google it! Yeah, me too. Why? Because we know it’s Google’s mission to give us fast, relevant information when searched. And they do an amazing job at it, don’t they?

We’re in the age of the research-obsessed consumer. Advanced Google Search helps with buying decisions and answering questions.

Your future customers are searching on a problem that your product or service solves - right now! The question is, will they find your website or your competitor?


1. 96% of B2B buyers use Google to find expert advice.
2. Organic Search is 5.6x better than Paid Search Ads.
3. 84% of Americans are online shopping - right now.

In order for your business to thrive, you must be visible in Google search results. It’s just that simple. And, to be visible in search you must tackle Search Engine Optimization. We’re here to help you; after all, we want you to succeed.

In this beginner’s guide to SEO, we’ll show you how to do SEO like a pro. There is no complex theory or technical jargon.

First, we’ll teach you how SEO works. Then, break it down into simple, actionable steps you can follow for the best results. Finally, we’ll show you everything needed to build your own Optimization Strategy to get your site ranking higher.

         Basic SEO principlesBasic SEO tipsand 10 Essential SEO Tips.

As a digital marketer, we’re always being asked to define SEO and what’s the secret sauce. Though people have a loose understanding that it gets your website into search engine results, they don’t see its complex nature.

Search engine optimization is a series of tactics used by marketers to make your business visible in the organic search results of Google and Bing. Its goal is to rank your web pages, blog posts, and media higher in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) for a given search term.

Most importantly, it's an organic process you can influence with good technical site structure, quality content, and authoritative backlinking. With good optimization, you, too, can influence higher rankings and gain more visibility.

Now you have a basic understanding of what Search Optimization is. But how does it work? Think of it as a repeatable process that sends signals to search engines that your content is worth indexing.

There’s lots of noise and competition in search. Coupled with limited positions on the 1st page of results, your content needs to be relevant, authoritative, and kick-ass. Otherwise, the search signals you send will be faint. So, to stand out in search results, create an engaging piece of quality content that’s optimized for a good user experience and answers the user's question better than your competitor does.

Google and other search engines have 3 core components: a crawler, an index, and an algorithm.

Search Engine Crawler

AKA “bot”, “robot” or “spider”. Its job is to follow links found on the internet. When it discovers pages on your website, it will crawl your content. The crawler will follow your links, both internal and external, adding new content to the index.

Search Engine Index

The index is Google’s massive database or catalog of web pages and online content discovered by the crawler.

Search Engine Algorithm

Search engines like Google use a complex formula or algorithm that’s responsible for the search results. Google uses its trademarked “PageRank” algorithm to determine search ranking and visibility.

Here’s a 3-minute video from Matt Cutts, an engineer (formerly) with Google, to explain how search works in simple terms.


Google’s mission has always been to present the most relevant search results to the user. In their own words...

google mission statement

Outside of your quality content, the search algorithm evaluates over 200 ranking factors when determining your rank and prominence in the SERPs. All are important to an effective and successful optimization strategy. However, we will focus on the top 3 for this SEO Guide.

Google Ranking Factors

  • Technical SEO
  • On-page SEO
  • Link Building

What is Search Engine Ranking?

Search engine ranking refers to the process used to determine a web page’s position in the SERPs. There are generally 10 organic listings per search page. Paid ads, featured snippets, local listings, videos, and images may expand each search page.

What is Search Engine Visibility?

Search Engine visibility refers to how prominently your web page is displayed in the SERP. Higher ranking (top of organic search results) listings mean higher visibility.

A few examples include search result positions 1-3 on page 1, a featured snippet, or a local listing. Less visible content wouldn't appear until pages 2, 3, and beyond.

A little history ranking first. In the past, you could game the search algorithm by “keyword stuffing” and paying for backlinks. This resulted in bad search results and a poor user experience. It’s also against Google’s core mission, and they eventually cracked down, launching a zoo of algorithm updates to improve the quality of results. Learn more in our Black Hat section below.

To rank higher than the top search engine results, you must prove that your content is indeed better and worthy of indexing. To do that your high-quality content needs 3 “RAD” ingredients:

  1. Relevancy
  2. Authority
  3. Diversity

Search Relevancy

Show topical relevance between the search query and page content. Do this by placing relevant keywords in the page title and the written content. Other good places include headlines and the first paragraph of text. We’ll discuss more in the Strategy Section.

SEO Authority

Google will boost your ranking if it considers your content authoritative for a specific topic. Authority is measured by its online popularity. The more your content is shared, discussed, and linked to, the more Google sees your content as a valuable resource.

Content Diversity

Beware the one-trick-pony website. Google is always evaluating your content and that of your competitors. Give users more than just text. Add a video, a podcast, or a SlideShare. Integrate compelling visuals such as infographics, screenshots, and animated how-to GIFs.

Yes, text is important, and Google translates text best, but we always need to “Solve for the User” first. Give the user a reason to stay on your page, and your “Dwell Time” will increase. This a great “RankBrain” signal Google will reward you for.

When users discover your quality content, they’ll find value and be compelled to link to you. They might also share your blog posts, videos, and podcasts on social media. There may be questions and discussions leading to further broadcast through resharing. Google will see your popularity rise.

How to Rank on Google

So, how do you rank higher on Google? I get asked this question all the time. My answer is simple - “Your content needs to answer the search query better than the Top 3 search results”.

The effort for ranking requires a well-executed Optimization Strategy and careful SEO Competitor Analysis. Optimize your web page content to be relevant, authoritative, and diverse. Users will respect you for producing high-quality content that helps answer their questions. When you do, you will rank high in search.

We know social media is tremendous for strengthening your brand. So, how does social media help your rankings? It’s a great method for off-site promotion of your content by integrating with powerful platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. It creates new inbound links to your pages, blog posts, and rich media.

Ad Extensions Guide

Social platforms expose your content to an entirely new audience while promoting discussion and re-sharing. The outcome of your consistent social efforts will build the necessary social signals that Google is listening for.

A word of caution. You should never use social media for self-promotion! If you do, you’ll lose the respect of your audience. Build brand awareness and goodwill by being helpful. Share your expert knowledge and exchange dialogue with the intent to help, not sell. If you gain the respect of your audience, they will see you as the expert they need to hire.

Plan your approach by crafting a social media strategy. You should post with a defined frequency. Frequent social engagement is a crucial part of your success.

Here are a few ideas to get your social juices flowing:

  • You can repurpose blog content into a social post series
  • Elicit questions from your audience
  • Post surveys relevant to common discussion topics
  • Curate and repost content your audience might find valuable
  • Post your rich media - videos, podcasts, SlideShares, etc.

To improve your search ranking, you’ll first need a plan to help organize your tactics, approach, and timing. This strategy section aims to give you the core principles for planning.

We’ve expanded our training series. After completing the core principles here, continue to the full training: Complete SEO Strategy Guide.

SEO Strategy: Step 1

Technical SEO

Technical Search Engine Optimization is key to your overall campaign and impacts your site, web hosting, and DNS. So, it’s important to optimize the items.

Building a “new website”, check out SEO for a New Website.


A few tips: Keep URLs short, include keywords, use lowercase letters, and use dashes instead of spaces.

Page Load Speed

Pages on your website need to load fast (2 seconds or less) for good ranking. You need not be an IT guru. Top host providers like “WPEngine” have onboard performance tools to help speed up your site. For fast page loading speed, you need:

  • SSL certificate for HTTPS
  • Integration with CloudFlare DNS
  • Image optimization
  • Content delivery network (CDN)
  • Website caching
  • SEO Site Audit

Website Navigation Best Practices

Google reads text best, so use text-based navigation and anchor text body links for the best crawlability results. A few link tips: use keywords for anchor text, link internally to relevant pages, and link to third-party authority sites when it adds value.

XML Sitemap

A utility file that’s crawlable by search engines lists all important web pages and is good for a healthy strategy.

Robots.txt file

A utility file that’s crawlable by search engines has special block/allow indexing instructions and is good for a healthy strategy.

Broken Links and Redirects (404s)

When you can’t find a web page (or file), the browser will show an HTTP 404 error. Not a good search signal.

Duplicate Content

It’s content that’s the same or similar to other content found online. Google will give preference to the original (first published) content and can work against your rankings. It’s easily fixed using the rel=“canonical” Tag to credit the original site.

Meta Tags

You need to add SEO Meta Tags to your site as they are important for ranking. A few top ones: Title Tag, Meta Description and Viewport.

Structured data markup

Special “Schema markup” code added to web pages that improve how Google displays your listing in the SERP. I.e. start ratings, map listings, recipes, etc.

Mobile Optimization

You may know this as mobile responsive, meaning your website content adapts to desktop, tablet, and mobile. So, Mobile First Indexing impacts SEOand it’s “vital” to your site’s optimization.

SEO Strategy: Step 2

On-page SEO

On-page Search Engine Optimization is a method used to increase user experience, rankings, and search traffic. On-page methods include content, keyword, mobile, and snippet optimizations, to name a few.

Before starting on-page, I suggest getting to know your audience first by developing a buyer persona. This will help show their problems, needs, and challenges. Then, you can start researching relevant keywords.

What is a Buyer Persona?

A buyer persona is a semi-fictional depiction of your ideal customer. It helps frame up the type of customers you’d like to engage with and outlines their goals and challenges. Once outlined, you’ll use new keywords to position your product/service as a solution to search questions.

Example Buyer Personabuyer-persona-seo-suzy-750x423-Jun-28-2021-10-43-48-24-PM


Suzy is your ideal customer. What challenges does she have? What goals can you help her achieve? How will you align your product/service (with keywords) to help her? We need to know what motivates her in search (AKA search intent).

Make your own Buyer Persona Generator

What is Search Intent?

Search intent is why someone uses the search engine and helps identify keywords. Types of intent are Navigational, Informational, Transactional, and Commercial research. For example, people using the word “buy” in their query have purchase intent.

How to do Keyword Research

Once you have defined buyer personas and search intent, you’re in a good position to start keyword research. Keywords help align search queries with your content, so doing your homework is important.

Start by making a list of questions your ideal customer might be asking. This is the basis of your keyword research. Then, run them through Google searches, Google Keyword Planner, or research tools like SEMRush or Moz. Is your content like the results?

Researching keywords is a massive project and requires time, patience, and a few tools.

I use enterprise tools instead of Google Keyword Planner for the best research results.

Remember, your goal is to solve for the user. So, find the right questions and leverage these keywords in your answer.

Keyword Optimization

Next, you’ll add the keywords to your web pages to create a purpose for the search engines. Integrate into the page title, URL, initial paragraph, H1 title, Meta Title, Meta Description, image filenames, and image ALT tags. Note that it’s also good to use keywords related to your primary keywords to improve context.


Use your keywords, keep it short, no spaces, only use hyphens and limit stop words.

H1 Title Tag

Your primary keywords should be in the H1 title tag of your main page heading atop your content. There should be only one H1 per page or blog post.

H2-H6 Title Tags

It's good to include related keywords in your subheadings. These title tags range from H2 to H6 and are used in a nested hierarchy.

First Paragraph

Include your primary keywords naturally to add context and show importance to Google.

Meta Title

Add your keywords and make them relevant to the page. Note it’s the blue link shown in SERPs, so let it shine.

Meta Description

Should support the keyword and promise you made in the Meta Title. Note that this copy is displayed under the link in the SERPs.

Image Filenames

Add keywords into your filenames, as Google can’t see an image but can read the filename (i.e. - my-cool-keyword.jpg).

Image Alt Tags

For screen readers, text is used instead of an image to help visually impaired visitors interpret the context of the image. Use your keyword to describe the image.

Image Title Tags

No real significance but we copy the Alt tag value to the Image title tag for good practice.

Semantic Keywords

Words related in meaning to your primary keyword add diversity and context to content.

Content Structure for Web Pages

Import on-page factors include multimedia, internal and external links, as well as content length, diversity, and reading level.

Content Length

Like blog posts, longer content generally ranks better when part of a larger content marketing strategy. Not because of the length but because the writer covers the topic in detail. Always check your competitor's content length as a benchmark.

Content Diversity

Your content should be interesting, with short sentences, good white and bulleted lists, and use visuals like images, graphics, screenshots, infographics, etc.

Content Reading Level

Your web copy's reading difficulty (Flesch Score) should be 60-70. Equivalent to 8th & 9th-grade level (13-15 yr-old students).

Internal Links

Allows Google to crawl the pages on your website as well as to show relevance and relationships between pages. Remember to use keywords in your anchor text links.

External Links

Add external links to authority sites to add value to the user and context to Google’s understanding of your content topic.


Use multimedia to add value to your pages, like videos, podcasts, and SlideShares, for a longer engagement, which is a good search signal.

SEO Strategy: Step 3

Link Building

Building links (AKA Off-site Optimization) is arguably the biggest ranking signal Google uses to determine page rank. Link building is the process of earning or gaining links to your site.

Sites with more backlinks tell Google it’s a quality resource worth linking to and generally earns a higher ranking. Building links must be done to rank.

What is a Backlink?

A link from another website “back” to yours acts like a “vote” in favor of your content.

Backlink Quality

The site linking to you will influence your page rank. So, a quality (authority) site links = a bigger confidence vote, and a quality link may work against you. So, building links from authority sites should be your focus.

Backlink Quality Factors

Three core areas:

  1. Website Authority includes Trust Flow, Citation Flow, Domain Rating (DR), and URL Rating (UR).
  2. Page Relevance includes Topical Trust Flow and Content Check (qualitative).
  3. Site Credibility checks if the linking site is HTTPS, the number of Referring Domains, the quantity of Organic Search Traffic, and the Spam Score (by Moz).

Link Building Strategies

One of, if not still the most important, ranking factors is the quantity of referring domains and the quantity and quality of backlinks.

Link-building examples include Influencer outreach, Editorial links via brand mentions, Guest posting, Local Citation, and the Skyscraper method, to name a few.

Backlink Analysis

Analyze the quantity and quality of your backlink profile along with your competitors using the tools in the resources section.

Backlink Outreach

The process of “reaching out” to influencer sites in an effort to earn backlinks to your content. It’s not easy but HubSpot has a few outreach tips that helped our team with building links.

Do you remember the old days when websites had counters? You notice that an additional 500 people have visited the site since yesterday. Obviously, things have advanced considerably since then. Most importantly, you can’t gauge the effectiveness of your Search Engine Optimization simply by the amount of organic traffic you generate.

Monitoring your performance and results starts with knowing what to look for. So, looking at your raw site visitor numbers is something. But what’s it really saying?

Let’s say 1,000 unique visitors come to your site within a month. Now, tell me something relevant about those visits. Can you? Do you know what you’re looking for? Would you know if you saw it? What if you did know? Would you know what to do with that new intel?


From our hypothetical 1k visitors, you’ll want to define a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). KPIs will provide deeper insights into the visits and help you measure ongoing performance.

KPIs are specific metrics about your traffic data and are measurable targets. I.e., visitor engagement, social engagement, and won/lost backlinks. They give a deeper insight into how consumers interact with your brand, website, and content. Performance metrics can be measured with tools like Google Analytics and SEMRush.

What are Examples of KPIs?

  • Pages per visitor session
  • Organic search traffic increase
  • Top-performing landing pages
  • Top exit pages
  • Keywords won/lost
  • Keyword positions, rank equity/kw
  • Domain authority & Page rank increase
  • SERP click-through rate (CTR)
  • Lead conversions (form submissions)
  • Average time on site/on-page
  • Bounce rate for site & per page
  • Visitor engagement analytics (via Hotjar)
  • Click, move & scroll heatmap stats
  • Top user interactions & per device type
  • Top conversion paths
  • Number of indexed pages
  • Backlink profile changes (won/lost/ without do-follow)
  • New followers, reshares, retweets, etc.
  • ...and there’s plenty more

Remember, search traffic itself won’t fill your sales pipeline. The trick here is to attract qualified consumers to your website and get them to engage with your brand.

How to Set KPI Targets

Set realistic and attainable KPI targets meaningful for your business to grow. Measure these targets often and track your performance.

Your KPI performance will speak to you over time. You’ll be able to draw better conclusions from the data. This will help you to make better campaign decisions.

White Hat and Black Hat SEO are two overarching strategies used by marketers to improve a site's ranking and visibility in search engine results. However, the methods used by each camp are quite different.

NOTE OF MENTION: All aspects of training found in this guide are White Hat. This section shows the distinction between methods and to steer you from SEO mistakes. Black Hat is the forbidden fruit - don’t be tempted.

Black Hat SEO

A set of unethical marketing practices used to increase a site’s page rank and/or deceive the user. These practices are in direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. There are more than a dozen of these Black Hat techniques. We’ll touch on just a few of the biggest offenders.

A little history on the early days of ranking techniques. In the past, you could trick the search algorithm by artificially increasing the keywords in your meta tags and content. You may know this practice as “keyword stuffing”. This approach no longer works and will count against your search rankings.

Another notorious tactic was to gain hundreds and sometimes thousands of “low quality” inbound links (backlinks) to your site by paying for them. Back in those early days, there were directory sites, link farms, link wheels, link pyramids, and private blog networks (PBNs). Some of these still exist (like PBNs), and you can still buy questionable links.

I won’t define all the link schemes and many other black hat tactics here. It’s important to know these schemes are designed to manufacture backlinks. This is a direct attempt to manipulate the algorithm and is the quickest way to come under a “Manual Action”. When this happens, you’ll get a very scary message in Google Search Console, and your organic traffic will flatline! It’s real!

Private Blog Networks (PBNs)

One of the link schemes mentioned above is still very much in practice today. A PBN is a network of high authority websites used to manufacture links to your product or service pages (AKA money pages).

A word of caution

So, let me caution you! DO NOT BUY LINKS! Don't take shortcuts. When you do, I can almost guarantee you're purchasing the link from a PBN or other less reputable source. What should I do then? Only use What Hat techniques - like the ones found in this Guide and be wary of SEO scams.

White Hat SEO

The marketing public refers to What Hat as a series of ethical techniques used to improve ranking in search results. I agree to a point. To me, White Hat really means marketing in a human way. Where our primary responsibility is to be helpful to the user and not to our Google rankings.

A few White Hat examples your site should offer:

  • Quality content to site visitors
  • A good website user experience (UX signal)
  • Fast-loading web pages (UX signal)
  • Mobile responsive web pages (UX signal)
  • Easy & mobile navigation (UX signal & crawlability)
  • Engaging SERP snippet (good Meta Tag structure)

Remember, White Hat is about “earning” your place in the search by being real, helpful, and genuine. NOTE: All methods and tactics listed in this Guide strictly follow White Hat principles.

Local Search Engine Optimization means increasing search visibility to those customers you’d service in person.

Sometimes, people need something locally. How far are you willing to travel to fix your laptop, find a great restaurant, or hire a tree cutter? Maybe close by in your city, county, or nearby region.

Do I Need to Market Locally?

It depends on your business and the people you serve. Small business SEO requires a special skill set, especially for local customers.

Think brick-and-mortar stores, service businesses, doctor’s offices, etc, that work within a specific geographic footprint.

Even if you leverage ecommerce or serve a wider geographic clientele, consider that your primary consumer base may still be local. Here, you’ll want to include local SEO in your strategy.

Local SEO Strategies

Promoting your products and services locally requires a little extra effort. This means you must use a few special local tricks.

  • Claim your Google My Business listing
  • Use NAP on your site (Name, Address, Phone Number)
  • Get honest customer reviews on Google, Yelp & BBB.
  • Build local citations
  • Create local-focused search snippets via your Meta Tags
  • Local-focused social media
  • Local-focused blog posting
  • Incorporate hybrid local keywords - i.e. using “near me”

SEO for Local Visibility

We mentioned that our goal is to boost local visibility in search. A great way to show local intent is to include location-specific terms in your search marketing.

Google does a great job of figuring out a person’s location and intent for search. However, using a term like “near me” in your query clearly signals local intent, with top drivers coming from mobile searches.

This local search intent says, " I need something in my vicinity. " It’s also saying I need it now or very soon. The data now suggests that 76 percent of local smartphone searches for something nearby result in a visit within a day.

The new search signals for businesses targeting locally improve local visibility and generate higher-quality search traffic.

How to Optimize Your Website for Local Search

There are a few steps here, so let’s start with adding location terms to our website optimization strategy.

1. Create Local Hybrid Keyword Terms

Creating hybrid terms means you’ll add local variant terms to your existing keyword terms. Local terms can be relative like “near me” or specific like “Chicago”. Once created, we’ll want to use it throughout our location-based pages.

Example - [my keywords] + [local variant] = [local hybrid keyword term]

Pro Tip: try adding a time variant for extra detail.

- coffee shops near me open late

Relative Local Variant

Add “near me” after your keywords.
You can mix things up by substituting “near me” for “around me” or “close by. " You may also use area notations such as “downtown,” “southern, " or “shoreline, " but only if they apply to your location.

Example: best Thai food near me

Specific Local Variant

Add “your city name" or “in your city name” after your keywords.
You can mix things up by putting the local variant before your keywords.

Examples: Limo Service New York City or New York City Limo Service

  • Use the new “hybrid term” on your location-based pages within body text, heading titles, and anchor text links.

NOTE: You can use “near me” in title headings, but I find looks unprofessional. Stick to “your city” for titles. For example, “best realtor in New Haven”. Don’t worry; Google will make the connection and sound more natural.

2. Earn Backlinks

Earning backlinks to your location-based pages using location-specific anchor text. Example (same as above): “best realtor in New Haven” as your backlink.

3. Make your Site Content Local-centric

Infuse your content with your location where appropriate. Write about local happenings, events, and industry-specific content affecting your region in your blog.

4. Create Internal Links

Ensure good crawl ability by creating relevant internal links from blog content to location-based product or service pages.

5. Setup your Google My Business Listing

How to Create a Google My Business Account

Quite possibly the best Local Optimization tactic. Although this comes later in our guide, it’s our first task when marketing locally. Here’s how to claim your business on Google:

Head over to: and click “Manage Now”:

attract new customers with your free business profile.

You can also use the mobile app, which is actually much easier. Try the free Google My Business app. Available for download in Google Play or the App Store.

Google Local Pack

The “Google Local Pack” is a new way of listing organic local business search results. After performing a local search query, Google will display the local pack as a map + 3 results.

The modified listings have different data:

  • Large Google map with corresponding location-type icons.
  • Business name
  • Average customer rating
  • Total number of reviews that make the rating
  • Type of business
  • Address
  • Average price rating
  • Summary description
  • Photo
  • Currently open/closed, with hours of operation
  • Can include website & phone number

Google local search results for - coffee shops near me

WOW, a lot to know! Try not to be overwhelmed. Just get your business listing rolling. Setup only takes 30 minutes, and once you do, you’ll be a giant step closer to ranking better in local search.

Staying on top of Search techniques and best practices is vital for continued success. It ensures that your optimization strategy evolves along with search engine demands.

Good SEO tools and resources can help. Note: you'll need more than Google Analytics and Google Keyword Planner. So, we’ve compiled a list used by our marketing team:

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