SEO is one of the most important tools you have to advertise your business online. The better your SEO, the more likely you are to draw web traffic—in particular, traffic from potential customers who are already searching for products or services like the kind your business offers.
If you’ve been out of the SEO game for a few years, a lot has changed. Search engines like Google are constantly changing algorithms, so an SEO strategy that might have worked as recently as last year won’t work in 2021.
In this guide, we'll answer the question, “How does SEO work in 2021?” and cover everything you need to know to boost your Google search ranking.
What is SEO and how does it work?
SEO is short for search engine optimization. It's the practice of making your website more easily readable by search engines like Google and Bing. The better these search engines can understand your website, the higher rankings your website will receive in search results, and the more visitor engagement you're likely to receive.
What does SEO mean in business? Business owners need to be aware that it's not enough just to make a great website and assume that it will automatically show up on the first page of search results. If you want traffic from organic search, you need to work for it and build your site’s SEO.
That means developing an active content marketing strategy that highlights the benefits of your business to customers while also targeting the keywords those customers use to find businesses like yours. It also means using effective SEO tactics like adding backlinks, internal linking, alt text, and page headers to help Google and other search engines catalog your site.If you're not sure how to apply these SEO techniques, don't worry. We'll cover everything you need to know about how to launch a successful SEO campaign in more detail below.
Why is SEO important?
You've spent the time and money to build a beautiful website that shows off the best aspects of your business. But now, you're getting a trickle of visitors instead of the flood you expected. What gives?
If you haven't managed your website content for SEO, that's likely to be a major part of the problem. In order for your website to show up in search results on major search engines, you need to optimize your website for SEO. Moreover, a website with strong SEO is more likely to show up at the top of search results for a given keyword than one with poor SEO.
To give a practical example, let's say your company sells widgets. If a customer enters a search query for “widgets” on Google, the degree to which you've built SEO-optimized content around the keyword “widgets” will determine whether your website is the first one listed in the search results.
Being first in search results matters—a lot. After all, any visitor looking for widgets is probably going to click on the website at the top of the page. If your competitor's website has stronger search engine ranking for “widgets” than yours, you could be losing out on critical customer leads and sales.
Why is SEO constantly changing?
Building your website's search engine rankings can feel like a never-ending chase. And, to a large extent, that's true. SEO is always changing, and you need to keep up if you want to maintain a strong online presence.
Google takes a lot of blame from business owners for constantly moving the SEO goalposts. Every search algorithm update means that other types of content are prioritized, search terms are changed, or more weight is given to things like high-quality traffic.
However, Google isn't making changes to SEO practices without good reason. New technology is constantly forcing search engines to evolve. For example, take the growth in mobile search volume in recent years. To ensure that mobile users are having a good user experience on mobile devices, Google updated its algorithm to make mobile-friendliness a key target for SEO efforts.
How to check your website’s current SEO
The first step to improving your website's SEO is to find out where you're at now. This is quick and easy, although you'll want to use a combination of tools to get a holistic view of how your site is ranking and how you can better reach your target audience and get more traffic to your site.
The best place to begin is with Google's free SEO tools: Google Analytics and Google Search Console.
If you don't already use Google Analytics, you should start right away. All you have to do is create an account, and then you can add a piece of code to your website that allows Google to start crawling your content and monitoring your visitor traffic. Google Analytics doesn’t itself help your website show up in search results, but it does offer critical information about who's visiting your website, what pages they're visiting, and how long they're staying.
Notably, Google Analytics doesn't tell you much about the types of search or the specific keywords that are driving search traffic to your website. That's where Google Search Console comes in. This platform shows you all the keywords for which your site is ranking, along with which keywords are driving the most clicks and impressions. The information that Search Console offers is particularly useful if you're launching a content marketing campaign or revamping your existing online content.
While these tools offer an overview of your search traffic, they don't cover all the aspects of your site that affect SEO. You can get more information using tools like Neil Patel's SEO Analyzer (free) or Sitechecker Pro (starts at $19/month).
Why do search rankings always change?
Even if Google and other search engines weren't making changes to their algorithms, search rankings would still be in constant flux. That's because online content changes at an overwhelmingly rapid pace.
Let's say that you mention “red widgets” on your website, but none of your competitors do. If someone searches for “red widgets,” all other things being equal, your site would be expected to rank first.
Sooner or later, though, one of your competitors notices that they're missing out on search traffic for red widgets and writes an entire blog post about red widgets. Now when a customer searches for red widgets your competitor's site may be at the top of the page, pushing yours into second place.
This kind of thing is happening all the time, and not just for a single target keyword. Every time you add content to your website or a competitor adds content to theirs, search engines are noting the changes and recalculating page rankings for different search queries accordingly.
Another reason search engine rankings could change is because of backlinks to your site. Say a website that mentions your site sees a boost in traffic. In that case, your site will get a boost from Google's algorithm, and your pages will rank higher in organic search results. Just like content updates, this is happening all the time and page rankings are moving around as a result.
How can you improve your website's SEO?
Now that you understand how SEO works in 2021, what steps can you take to improve your website's search engine ranking and land more traffic on your website? We'll cover five SEO tips for beginners that can help your website stand out on Google.
1. Build a list of keywords
A strong keyword strategy is key to having success with SEO. Developing a list of keywords that are relevant to your business is often the best way to begin SEO campaigns. Keywords are the terms that your target audience will search, and you want your site to show up first whenever these words are entered into Google.
To determine what keywords are important for your website, start by studying user intent and finding out what keywords users are searching for that lead them to your site right now. You should also look at what keywords your competitors' websites are ranking for, and whether your site ranks above or below them for those keywords.
This is also a chance to think outside the box. Are there keywords that neither you nor your competitors are ranking for, but which people who could be interested in your business might be searching?Once you have a broad list of keywords, you can identify which ones are more important to your search ranking right now and begin your SEO efforts with those.
2. Launch a blog
Perhaps the best change you can make to grow your website's search traffic is to launch a blog. Blog posts are valuable content that offer an opportunity to showcase your products, build a long-term relationship with your audience, and establish your business as an authority in your field.
Blogs are also crucial for SEO because they give you an opportunity to hit lots of keywords that your target audience might search. In particular, blog posts are a great place to hit long-tail keywords that wouldn't otherwise make it onto your website. You can even decide what topics to write about based on the list of keywords you developed before starting your SEO campaign.
In addition, blogs give you a chance to develop internal links across your website. You can link to one blog post inside another post, for example, or link from a blog post to another piece of content like a product page. Google's algorithm notices these internal links and favors them when deciding how to rank sites that compete for the same keywords.
3. Develop backlinks
Another important way to boost your website's SEO is link building with backlinks. Backlinks are links from other websites to your site. The more high-quality content or high-traffic websites that link to your site, the better Google's algorithm thinks your website is.
The easiest way to build backlinks to your site is through guest blogging. Many well-known blogs are happy to accept guest posts if you simply ask, and you can insert a backlink to your site into your post.
You can also improve your SEO by linking out from your site to other high-traffic websites. Try adding links to partners or news stories in your blog posts or accepting guest posts on your own site. Just make sure to audit these backlinks once a year or so, since broken links can actually hurt your site's organic search ranking.
4. Add meta descriptions
A meta title is the page title that shows up in search results, and a meta description is the text that appears below it. Meta titles and descriptions play a significant role in both how well your site ranks in organic search results and how likely searchers are to click on your site over a competitor's site.
When writing meta titles and descriptions, aim to hit the keywords that are most essential to your website. That said, always write for humans, not search engines. You want Google to pick up on the keywords, but remember that people will see your page title and use that information to decide whether or not it's a site they want to visit.
5. Speed up your website
Website speed is one of the most overlooked factors when it comes to SEO. Google’s search engine algorithms reward sites that load quickly with better page rankings and punishes those that aren't streamlined enough.
To get a sense of how quickly or slowly your website loads, you can use Google's PageSpeed Insights tool. This tool tells you exactly how long your site takes to load and offers actionable information about what elements of your site are slowing things down. Ideally, you should aim for a loading time of two seconds or less for every page on your website.
SEO will still matter in 2021 and beyond
As more and more businesses move online, the search landscape is only becoming more crowded. At the same time, online traffic is continuing to serve as an ever-more-important driver of a business's customers and sales. In this environment, building your website's SEO is the best way to remain competitive.
Going into 2021, it's important to have a strong SEO plan in mind. Identify the keywords that matter to your business, develop a content strategy, and take a hard look at your website to determine how it can work better to bring in search traffic. Our SEO tips for beginners offer a good place to start, but there are many more steps you can take to ensure your website is first in line in online search results.
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A frequenter of Washington's North Cascades, Michael is happiest ascending a glacier on his skis or jotting away about the great outdoors. With a PhD in Oceanography, the core of Michael's work with Eleven focuses on conservation, environmental science, and other related issues.