Three letters, one seemingly huge, secret, and scary world. This guide to SEO aims to give you a suitable grounding in the basics of SEO. After reading this you should feel a little more equipped if you decide to research the world of SEO further; or should you decide to hire an SEO consultant – you’ll know whether they’re
The guide is broken down into six core chapters as follows:
- Chapter one – SEO Basics
- Chapter two – SEO foundational theory
- Chapter three – technical SEO
- Chapter four – SEO Myths
- Chapter five – SEO black hat techniques to avoid
- Chapter six – SEO tools and links
For reference this guide was last update on October 21st, 2020.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. SEO is the ongoing process of ensuring your website is optimally designed and built so that search engines can understand and index your site.
Indexing is the process of a search engine sending out a bot (sometimes called a spider) to inspect and read your website’s content. A bot is just an automated computer program that scans through the pages of your website, just like a human reader. That data is added to the search engine’s database using various algorithms and matched against what it thinks are relevant keywords.
Keywords refer to the words and phrases that your users or potential clients enter into a search engine when looking for information, products, or services. The ultimate goal of SEO is to have your website appear right at the top of the search results when a client enters a keyword that relates to your business.
What SEO isn’t
SEO should not be regarded as a way to fool, cheat, or game the search engines. At the end of this guide, we’ll give you some further links to keep learning; at that point it’s likely you will come across the phrases “black hat” and “white hat” with reference to SEO techniques.
Simply put, it’s often possible to fool a search engine and rank your site artificially higher. New tricks and techniques are always being discovered. These techniques are known as black hat SEO. The problem with black hat tactics is that these techniques are temporary measures at best and will almost certainly result in your site being blacklisted later on. That means your site will disappear completely from a search engine’s result pages. Getting a site delisted is extremely problematic and is best avoided at all costs.
White hat techniques are the polar opposite of black hat; these are sensible and safe adjustments you can make to your site that will help both Google and your site visitors find what they are looking for.
To be clear, we strongly caution against using anything remotely close to black hat techniques. SEO is a slow and ongoing process, if something seems like a quick fix or too good to be true, it usually is.
Does 34SP.com offer SEO services or tools?
We do not, for a few simple reasons.
Firstly, the market is already packed with myriad amazing SEO tools, some free, some paid. It doesn’t make any sense for us to build our own or offer them to you acting as a middleman or broker and taking a cut. At the end of this guide we will give you a list of our favourites, those we use ourselves.
The same goes for SEO services. SEO is a very hands on, labour intensive task when it’s done right. It’s not uncommon for a reputable SEO company to charge four figures a month to assist a small to medium business with their SEO work.
Can I do SEO myself or do I need to hire someone?
SEO is absolutely something you can learn yourself, and even master if you take the time to learn and understand. The goal of this handbook is to give you a good grounding in the essentials of SEO so you can continue learning and reading more advanced items if you so wish.
It’s also fine to hire an individual or a company, too. As you’ll see from this guide, SEO is time consuming and can be a full time job. It might well be a task that you just want to hand off to someone else.
Again, keep in mind that SEO is a long term process that takes time and patience. If someone knocks on the door and promises to make your site appear in position one on Google for a one time payment of £100, chances are it’s a scam or they’re using black hat techniques. Do your due diligence before hiring outside SEO expertise as you would on any company. Competent and reliable SEO companies don’t come cheap.
If you need some help finding a reputable SEO company, get in touch with our support team and we can advise.
Is SEO essential?
Yes and no. First off, don’t let the last few paragraphs scare you away. There’s no need to become an SEO ninja or spends thousands of pounds in order to get your site indexed and customers flowing in from search engines.
Whilst SEO can quickly become complex and expensive if you’re trying to compete in a huge online or international market, chances are that’s not your business. Most of our clients are small businesses in a modest sized town or city. They often sell niche products. These sites can get great traction in local search (ie. where your customers are) by following sound SEO principles repeatedly over time.
We would definitely advise that you read this guide and understand the fundamentals of SEO, though. It’s useful to understand the core points of SEO and start your site on solid foundations. From there you can tweak and evolve it over time.
SEO foundational theory
In this section we will try to cover some of the larger concepts and theories that underpin SEO. After reading you should understand what are we doing and why are we doing it.
Before we begin, we’re going to start talking about just one specific search engine: Google. There are other search engines, but Google is the monster when it comes to search. For most websites, and this guide is aimed at our UK customers, you’ll find more than 95% of your search traffic comes from Google.
That’s not to say we’re ignoring or discounting other search engines or the traffic they generate to your site but what you’ll generally find is that if your site appears in Google search results, it will also appear in other search engines’.
Who or what am I optimising for?
OK we just said Google, but in reality you’re optimising your website for the end user or potential customer. This might seem incredulously simple or even counter-intuitive. Why is there an entire industry around SEO if this is the case? Surely there are some fantastical secrets or cunning code I can deploy to my website to rank in position one?
In truth, not really. SEO is about ensure your site meets your website’s users needs. You’ll see Google time and again imploring you to do this. As machine learning gets better and better, the little bots that Google sends out to understand your site increasingly mimic a real life user. They try to read and understand your site and its content just as a human would.
SEO silver bullets
Before we move on, let’s keep talking about that supposed silver bullet for a moment. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s a defacto way to do SEO. Not even us. There are definitely best practices but there are no guarantees. SEO is a long and slow process with no easy quick fixes.
You’ll find a lot of spirited discussion online about SEO; a great new discovery or white hat technique. These people might sound really smart, but remember there’s no SEO qualification or accreditation. These people (whether right or wrong) are just like you, they started from scratch and learned what they know from experience.
Google very rarely explain their algorithms or ranking methodologies. If they did, the black hat folks would very quickly start to game those systems and people searching on Google would find less and less useful websites. Google’s algorithms for how they rank websites are as secret as KFC’s eleven herbs and spices.
Top tip: If you find yourself doing more advanced reading online, check the date on anything you read. The SEO world is always changing and if you’re reading anything more than a year old, it might well be outdated.
Ranking / SERPS / Positions
There’s a lot of jargon in SEO. Don’t let it put you off. We’ll try to address each one as we go along.
Firstly ranking is a phrase you’ll see often. It speaks to the ultimate goal of all our SEO activities, ranking your website in the search engine results, or SERPs as we call them.
SERPs are Search Engine Result Pages. Go to Google right now, search for something and see what comes back. That page is the first of the SERPs. Honestly, we only care about that first page. If we’re going to be brutally honest we only obsess about the top three positions on that first page.
When a user or customer does a search on Google, they’ll usually click on the first thing they see. That’s human nature, we’re pretty lazy. Maybe that site doesn’t quite have what they’re after, so they’ll hit back and try the second link. Maybe, just maybe they will go ahead and try that one more time if they’re still struggling to find what they want.
Chances are though, after one or two attempts, the user will either give up or try a different search phrase or keyword. This behaviour has been studied and documented over and over and why position one on the SERPs is the holy grail of SEO. Sure, if your website ranks in position six you might get some small amount of traffic, but it’s going to pale in comparison to what spots 1-3 will generate.
Let’s quickly talk about that number one position. Imagine if your site ranked in position one in Google right now for your preferred keyword. Great, right? What’s the worst thing that could happen? The dreaded bounce we talked about in the previous section.
Bouncing refers to the act of a user visiting a website, quickly leaving, and continuing to search for the same thing elsewhere. Suffice to say, we definitely want to avoid this.
Google is obsessed with providing their users with quality search results. If every time a user came to Google they had to search ten pages deep to find what they’re after – and we know they won’t do that – then they might start to look elsewhere. Those old enough to remember the bad old days of the Internet will remember jumping around various search engines for hours and hours, looking for that elusive piece of information. Today, whateveryou’re looking for is usually in the top three spots of a Google search result page.
Google understand this implicitly, it lives and breathes quality search results. You’ll see a lot of SEO websites talk about quality score. While we don’t know precisely how Google works internally, we can safely guess that it does assign some kind of quality score to websites based on how users interact with them. Bounce is one of those key indicators for interaction.
If you take two websites; one with users who come in from a search result and stay for 10 minutes reading content, and another where users arrive from a search result and bounce straight away, which do you think has the better content and which do you think will rank higher?
It’s this process that Google is constantly tweaking. If you search for the same keywords in Google over a period of time, you will notice some of the results change here and there. The results almost dance around on the page.
This Google dance is Google’s automated process of trialling websites in higher and lower positions in the SERPs. Google wants to know if a website should rank higher and be more visible to users.
By placing a website higher in the SERPs, it will receive more visitors. From there, do those visitors stay and read the content, or do they bounce right out? You can probably guess what happens to the websites with high bounce rates versus those with lower bounce rates, where the users stay and read the content. Over time, one will appear higher and higher in SERPS, the other lower and lower. This can be a virtuous circle for websites with really great content.
This process is repeated a baffling amount of times. Millions of websites. Billions of different search terms. Trillions of searches. All the time, Google is testing and tweaking its SERPs.
Which brings us nicely to the concept of user intent. When a user visits Google, they typically have a singular intent in mind. They’re trying to find a particular service, product, or piece of information. They want to find the most appropriate website, and find it fast.
Your goal is to make sure that the pages of your website meet the intent of the user who ends up on them. That way, we reduce bounce and increase time on site – how long the user stays and reads your website. This means keeping the pages on your website focused and detailed. Each page should talk about one thing and do so in as much detail as is appropriate.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “How on earth am I going to make the pages of my website interesting? I only sell this one product that’s not particularly exciting or cool.”
That’s OK, you don’t need to make every page on your site an epic of 10,000 words. This is one of the reasons why blogs are so popular on business websites. Let’s say you run a cleaning company. You probably have pages on your site for the services you offer, your prices, the area you serve. Maybe you have some customer testimonials from people who have used your services and been impressed. But what else? How are you going to draw people into your website? There’s only so much you can write about your cleaning company.
Blogs give you chance to write content over and over to meet the needs of your potential clients. For your cleaning company for example, you could write a blog post on how to clean a certain type of stain. The best way to deal with a red wine spill one week, how to tackle muddy footprints the next.
Over time, Google will start to index these posts, and start to display them in search results to users. Your website will hopefully start to match more and more user intent. If your post on how to deal with red wine spills is really useful, it might start to get pushed up the SERPs.
As it goes up, so does the amount of traffic. Hopefully that article is really, really great, users don’t need to bounce out and read any more sites. They come to your site, they find what they need, and Google recognises this.
At this stage, Google might say to itself, “This site has quality content that users really seem to love. I can probably start to trust them a little more. What if we try moving some of their other pages up the SERPs to see how users react?” Now those seemingly less exciting pages, your core business product pages, start to rank a little higher.
Now when a user in your local area searches for cleaning services, maybe some of your core pages start to rank higher. Or maybe someone in your local area found your article about dealing with red wine stains and now knows about your company – you also just proved your status as an expert in the field to them.
Top tip: You’ll hear over and over that lengthy content outperforms short content. There’s some truth to this, but only to the extent that it matches user intent. Like a lot of SEO, use your common sense, and think about what the user is trying to achieve with their search. If a subject is complex, by all means go wild. If the answer to their search is simple, keep it short.
Keywords and the long-tail
We talked briefly about keywords at the start of the handbook, but we need to go into more detail as you’ll hear a lot about keywords in SEO. Keywords are the words and phrases a user enters into a search engine; the ultimate goal being your site appearing number one in the SERP.
One of the first steps in SEO is identifying the keywords you want to target. You’ll probably have an instant gut reaction, but you need to think a little longer. For example, 34SP.com would love to appear number one in search for “hosting”, but that immediately puts us into competition with companies all across the globe, orders of magnitude bigger than we are.
The keyword isn’t very focused, either. Someone searching for hosting could be looking at how to host the perfect dinner party. Instead we need to think about long-tail keywords. These are longer, more nuanced search terms. They speak more accurately to the user intent. In turn your website is more likely to rank for these keywords as there will be increasingly less competition. Long-tail keywords also convert better, again they speak more precisely to the user intent.
For example, instead of targeting “hosting” we might target the term:
- WordPress web hosting in Manchester
In this example our long-tail keyword not only clarifies a type of hosting but location, too. Someone searching for this phrase is more likely to be local to our business; moreover we know they’re interested in something about web hosting, specifically WordPress related.
Great, we can help with that!
Keyword discovery is a huge part of SEO. You take the keywords you think are great for your website and try to expand on them to find long-tail alternatives. In the resource section of this guide we’ll point you to a few great keyword discovery tools; they’re usually as simple as entering your ideal keywords, and being shown alternatives that you might not have considered.
Top tip: An easy way to discover new keywords is simply by using Google itself. Ever notice how when you start to enter information into Google search it tries to autocomplete your typing? That autocomplete is based on what Google has seen other users search for, ordered by relevance and volume. If you start to enter your keyword and Google suggests something subtly different, but with the same meaning then you just found yourself another keyword to target.
In the previous section we talked mainly about the general concepts and theory of SEO. In this section we will talk about more technical matters. We’ll detail some actual changes you can make to your site to start ranking in the SERPs for your chosen keywords.
Meta <title> and <desc> tags
Every page of your site should have these two tags in the HTML code. The two tags help to form what’s shown for your page in the SERP. The <title> tag is largely copied in Google SERPs but the <desc> can often be tweaked by Google. It might choose to take content from your page itself, if it feels that is more relevant.
Once upon a time – and we mean really in the infancy of the www – meta title and desc tags could make a direct difference on search results. Since it was so easy to game, this was quickly removed. These days the content of the title and desc tags don’t directly relate to SEO ranking but they can impact CTR – Click Through Rate.
CTR is the ratio of how many times your site appears in the SERP to how often a user clicks through to your website. This is one of the golden metrics in SEO. A high CTR tells Google that people are really engaged with what they see in your result block – that it really matches their search intent. Of course you need to couple this with great content once they reach your site, otherwise, you guessed it: bounce rate rears its ugly head again.
Take a look at the two images of a hypothetical website below. Which do you think the user is more likely to click through to?
Header <h1> tags
Your website pages are ideally broken down by headers. These stat with <h1> then <h2> and so on. Critically there should be only one <h1> tag on your page. The <h1> tag should be the main header for the whole page content, describing what the user will find below. Always ensure you don’t have duplicate <h1> tags.
Image alt tags
Make sure all your images have readable and sensible alt tags. Not only does the alt tag give a search engine a textual description of your image, it also helps users with accessibility needs to understand your site.
For the search engine, everything you can do to help it understand the context of what your site and pages are about is important. You can see alt tags in action by hovering your mouse over an image on a webpage. That little text description that appears is coming from an alt tag.
Go to your own website and do that with your images. Ask yourself, does the text for each image contextually match what the image and page is about?
Keywords in content
It goes without saying that you should ensure the keywords you are targeting appear on the relevant pages of your website. That’s to say if a page on your site is about carpet cleaning services, and you want people searching for “carpet cleaning” to find it, the page should mention carpet cleaning a few times.
Don’t go crazy here. Keyword stuffing – the overuse of the keyword – is a red flag to Google. The web is littered with advice on what percentage ratio of keyword to content is and isn’t considered stuffing. Our advice is somewhat more prosaic: write your page for your user in plain English.
Try to use as many different variations of the keyword as you can, but if that’s not possible and you have to use the keyword a lot, that’s fine as long it reads like sensible English. Have a friend read through your website; what do they think, does it read well? Good, that’s fine for Google too!
Internal links are links within your website to other pages on your site. This means more than having a navigation bar at the top of each page. Your content should include those links too. It’s important to have a healthy number of internal links on your site.
These links help both your site visitors and Google find more parts of your site to read. The longer visitors stay on your site the more of a positive indicator for Google that you’re meeting the user’s initial search intent. Like keywords, don’t spam internal links for the sake of it. Look at each page through the eyes of the user – what do you think they’d like to read or know about next?
Don’t be afraid of linking to other websites if you believe it’s beneficial to the user experience. Only link to high quality websites you know and trust. Remember a link from your site to another is a sign of trust. See more on this in our SEO Myths section later on.
You should keep the structure of your website’s URLs as simple as possible. The URL is what appears in the address bar of the browser, e.g.
is far more preferable than
The first link gives both the user and Google far more information about what the page might be about than the second.
If your website uses WordPress, check out the permalink section of the WordPress dashboard. You will see it offers a variety of ways to display your page URLs. Pick anything other than the first default option. Your aim is to keep your URLs easy to read and understand. Likewise aim for clean URLs without file extensions, sessions IDs, tracking codes, etc.
Unless there’s a good reason to do so, don’t create too many subdomains for your website.
Instead we use
Opinion is mixed on this, but general best practice says avoid subdomains unless they have a specific user advantage.
This could be a whole guide to itself, but go ahead and load your site on your mobile device right now. Check it on a phone, check it on a tablet if you can. How does it look on both, is it easy to navigate and read your content? Be honest with yourself.
If your site is hard to read or navigate on mobile devices, your bounce rate will increase and Google will recognise this. Google will identify that your site has a poor experience on mobile devices and it will start to drop in rankings. Such is the importance of mobile search, Google actually maintains a separate desktop and mobile search index. It’s possible your site appears differently in each. At the very least you should check and be aware.
If you think people searching on mobile devices isn’t a big deal, think again. Think how often you’re glued to a screen other than your computer.
Exactly how you make your website a better mobile experience is too big a subject for this guide. It will depend on the technologies you’ve used to build your site. Our own advice would be to look at WordPress if you haven’t done so already as it can offer mobile ready experiences out of the box. WordPress also offers a number of responsive themes – website designs that automatically reconfigure their appearance based on the screen size of the user’s device.
A sitemap is a file on your site that lists every page and where to find it. The file is written in the XML language. An XML sitemap file won’t make your site rank by itself, but it will tell Google where your pages are and how they’re linked.
If you’re using the correct setup, your sitemap can also inform Google of new content, so their bots visit and index your new content sooner rather than later. You can see our own sitemap in XML format here:
As you can see, the XML markup language is very defined; this is not something you should be building manually. Again if you use WordPress to run your website, this feature is built into later versions of the software as standard.
The use of social media for SEO is a hotly debated topic. We’re not going to get into that can of worms now but we would advise making sure you grab all the social media accounts you can for your business, even if they’re just placeholders to prevent misuse of your brand name. That means scooping up a Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram account and Pinterest account – at a minimum.
If you do decide to promote your business on social media, you’ll likely find your audience or customers generally reside on only one or two platforms. Each industry is quite different, some love Twitter, others are on Facebook.
We don’t know for certain if social media use has any impact on SEO but we do know that Google is smart. Incredibly smart. If hundreds of people are happily sharing information about your product on Facebook and making positive commentary about it, chances are that Google is going to be aware of this fact.
404s and other error codes
This might sound simple, but routinely check if all areas of your site are working as they should.
You can use a free tool like Screaming Frog (see resource section later in this guide) to index your site as a browser and report back any error codes it finds. Check out this piece on our blog about understanding error codes.
It goes without saying that you want your website to be error-free.
SSL (TLS is a more modern name for SSL) secures the connection between your browser and the server sending you the website information – encrypting everything that goes back and forth. You can tell when SSL is active as you will see the padlock icon in your browser when connected to an SSL secured site.
As mentioned earlier, Google very rarely tells the public how their ranking algorithms work so when they do, you need to sit up and listen. This is what happened in 2014 when they announced that the use of SSL would become an increasingly important ranking factor:
Since that post in 2014, Google has only committed more and more to SSL. Not only do they reward sites using SSL, in recent years they’ve actively started to penalise sites that don’t use SSL. We’re huge fans of SSL, too, and SSL is 100% free for 34SP.com hosted websites:
If you need more guidance on SSL just get in touch with our support team and we’ll gladly help you to get your site secured.
Duplicate content is a big no-no. Make sure each page on your site has unique content. Don’t create pages just for the sake of it. If you do have duplicate content on your site, the best outcome is that Google simply disregards it and will only index one version of a page.
On the other end of the scale, if you have endless amounts of duplicate content Google might suspect your site is up to no good. For that reason, avoid copying content from other sites; Google will know who first published that content.
Having a quick website can be a huge make or break factor for not only SEO but your website overall. Countless studies have shown the impact of site loading speed on the end user. The single takeaway is always the same: people are impatient. If they have to wait for your website to load for more than two or three seconds, they are likely to hit the back button and check out the next website on the SERP – hello bounce our old friend!
At the end of this handbook, you’ll find a couple of free resources for speed testing your website. They’ll give you a report on your site, how long it takes to load, and point you in the right direction to solve any performance issues.
Site speed is a complex matter and worthy of a handbook to itself. If your website is hosted by 34SP.com we can happily advise on your website performance and speed; we can identify what might be slowing things down and recommend improvements you can take. Some quick and simple steps include:
Don’t upload RAW files direct from your fancy DSLR camera straight to your website. Keep images smaller and in compressed formats like jpeg.
This one is obviously close to our hearts. The type of web hosting you use has a massive impact on your site’s performance. All plans are not created equally. Ask your host about options, and if speed is a concern always shy away from shared hosting of any kind.
Loading third party assets and resources
The more elements your site has to load in from third party services – everything from tracking pixels and fonts to ad banners – the more you risk slowing your site down. Often your site will pause loading if it’s waiting on a third party asset to load in.
Poorly written code or plugins
This can be harder to identify but badly written scripts or WordPress plugins can really slow your site down to a crawl.
On the topic of speed is the Google Accelerated Mobile Pages project. This is a relatively recent platform by Google to speed up the mobile web. AMP enabled sites offer their content up to Google in a very specific format. In turn, Google takes that content and serves it direct from their servers. AMP pages are usually very stripped down and load ultra fast.
If you search on Google on a mobile device and see a little lightning bolt next to a search result – that’s a page that’s being delivered over Google AMP. You’ll notice it loads ridiculously fast. As we mentioned above, users love fast sites.
Google AMP is another hotly debated SEO topic – aren’t they all? We’ve definitely seen sites benefit from this, those with content that appeal to mobile users. Platforms like WordPress have plugins to make AMP deployment quick and relatively simple. If you need an extra ounce of speed on mobile, it may be worth investigating.
I’ve left this one to the end of the section as it can be one of the most challenging areas of SEO. Link building is the activity of encouraging other websites to link to yours. This is in addition to organic links, which are links from websites that happen naturally.
However the link to your site comes to be, SEO theory advises that this is a good thing in the eyes of Google. The more sites that link back to yours, surely the more important your site is? Each link can be thought of as a pat on the back, a high five, a sign of trust from another website to yours.
This notion of links conferring trust was actually the basic premise of how Google first came to be. Their initial idea was built off scanning the web and analysing who linked to whom. Sadly, black hat SEO types quickly latched onto this and took the practice to the nth degree. Link farms were created – vast arrays of thousands of websites, created with no real purpose other than to create thousands of spurious links back to the target website and increase rank. Google was quick to spot this trick.
As a result, Google moved on from links alone in how they assessed a website’s standing. Each element Google uses to weigh up a website’s value is known as a ranking factor, and some believe there are hundreds today. That said, links remain an undeniable part of the mix. Even if not for Google, they’re a great way for real users to find your site!
Depending on who you speak to in the SEO world, you might be told link building is the be all and end all of SEO; do this and do this alone. Many SEO companies can be hired at great expense and will work tirelessly and do nothing but build links for you. They might write content for your blog then go out into the world and ask other websites to link back to that.
You can easily spend morning, noon, and night doing nothing but asking for links. This probably isn’t the best use of your time, nor a wise practice. Again, Google isn’t dumb. It knows how fast an average site will generate organic links. If your site suddenly starts generating 10 links a day due to your active soliciting, and the average is 1 a month, it might assess that something isn’t right.
Our own advice would be to not obsess over link building. Yes, links are important but they’ll come in time. If you have a good product, service or information, people will want to link to your site. You should be working on this side of the equation first, creating a website that people want to link to.
Of course a little gentle link building can’t hurt, and it’s something you might want to look at as an ongoing project, slowly and patiently. Here are a few ways to start generating links to your site:
What suppliers does your company use?
They’ll probably be happy to link to you and your site, as proof to their potential customers about their existing business relationships.
Likewise, ask them about doing a testimonial, a story about how great their company or service is. Again, they’ll want to link back to you for proof to sell their own product.
Whether they’re running a local blog or work in print, TV, or radio, everyone is looking for content. Put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to talk about your website.
Write content for other websites. You’re an expert in your field so go ahead and share that information freely on other websites. Chances are they’ll happily link back to your website.
Guest blogging can often be frowned on, but only because again, some SEO types took this to the nth degree. There’s no harm in writing for a reputable website and demonstrating your expertise in your industry.
Activity in communities
If you’re active in a small community, online or offline, you probably have strong connections to numerous sites and people. Ask them to link to your site in whatever way makes sense.
If your website is new, gently investigate the communities that might want to visit your site and read your content. Start slowly, learn the ropes, don’t barge in. Get to know people before ever asking for a link. This can take a lot of time and patience but can be highly rewarding.
Promotions and giveaways
If you’ve got a great promotion, tell people about it! Tell other businesses, local bloggers and media. Chances are you’ll earn links.
You might think your site or business is too small for this. Think again. Local newspapers and radio have an insatiable thirst for news and content. Give them something to talk about. They have a website too and they’ll put the info there as well – with a link.
From local teams and groups through to events, festivals, award ceremonies, and more, sponsorship can be a powerful tool. As a sponsor, the organisation will almost certainly link to your site.
If you do find websites that link to you, or offer to link to you, don’t be afraid of specifying where you’d like them to link to. For example, when we sponsor a WordPress event, the organiser might understandably link to our homepage. As we have a WordPress product that’s more useful for the event’s attendees, we might ask the event organisers to change the link to our WordPress page. That just makes sense for everyone involved.
Anchor text and links
Before we move on, a quick word about anchor text. Anchor text is the written description. of the link you read and click on. E.g. WordPress Hosting
https://www.34sp.com/wordpress-hosting -> is the actual URL being linked to and “WordPress Hosting” is the anchor text.
Anchor text can be very powerful. It tells Google what a link is about, what the context of the link is. Context is huge in SEO. In an ideal world, when your site receives links, the anchor text should precisely match the keyword you have in mind for that page. When a page on your site has a very focused keyword and has lots of links, all with anchor text that’s close to the page’s targeted keywords, we’re very happy in SEO world.
A word of warning here: do not try to game this. If you’re asking for links, its best just to let the website owner choose their own anchor text, even if it’s something unrelated to yourideal keyword.
Trying to game anchor text is something Google is acutely aware of. If every link to your site is carefully sculpted to match your keywords exactly, Google will know for sure you’ve manipulated your inbound links. Again, Google can draw on a dataset in the billions and trillions to know how websites typically link organically. For example, most people choose to link to 34SP.com using the anchor text www.34sp.com – very few actively choose WordPress Hosting.
Do be aware of the power of anchor text, but don’t seek to exploit it.
We’ll caveat this section by saying again don’t trust anyone to give you defacto advice, not even us. That said, everything in this handbook comes from our own 20 years of SEO experience. We think it’s solid advice and practice it daily.
As a web host, we hear this one a lot: “I have five websites, each needs to be hosted on its own class C IP range”. The old theory goes that Google discovers you own multiple websites and they link to each other, and they’re all on the same IP address/range so you might get penalised for running a link farm.
Unless you’re hosting hundreds of websites, with thousands of links back and forth between each other we don’t think this advice is solid. If you are doing that, you are actually running a link farm anyway so you should probably stop!
In practice we think this is bad advice as IP address space has dramatically dwindled over the past decade. Without going into terrible detail, Google understands this, it knows that hosts might use a single IP address to host hundreds or thousands of sites so if a small handful of your sites do indeed share an IP address, it’s fine.
At 34SP.com we deal with this query almost every single week, it’s one of the most (incorrectly) ingrained beliefs. If you don’t believe us, this is what Matt Cutts, formerly of Google’s search quality team said on the point:
Paid search helps SEO
One popular myth is that if you use Google’s paid PPC services (paying for your site to appear in search ads) you will also see better organic SEO results. This again is demonstrably false and debunked by Google themselves:
Bounce is bad
Earlier we told you that user bounce should be avoided at all costs. There’s a slight caveat to that. Bounce is more than fine if the user is finding the information they’re after. If they arrive at your site and that’s the end of their journey, that’s great. In fact, that’s perfect!
When reviewing bounce rate on your site, do also look at other factors. Look at time on site as a complementary factor. If you have a high bounce rate and an average time on site of say one or two seconds, that could be a negative indicator.
We’d all love to have a .com domain name, but each year securing the perfect .com domain name gets harder and harder. Don’t even look for any three or four letter .com domain names that aren’t registered. Chances are soon you won’t find any usable five or six letter .com domains free either.
Because of this, website owners will need to look increasingly to the newer domain names that are available. You might look towards a country code domain like .co.uk if you’re a UK website, but those too are also increasingly tricky to come by.
Instead, don’t be afraid to look at the new TLD domain space rapidly becoming available. Everything from .design for creative sites to .menu for restaurants. There’s also the possibility that a better defined domain might help with your click through rates and bounce rates too. I wrote a blog piece on that here.
To sink your teeth into the vast world of domain name options – you can see a complete list of the hundreds of different domain names we offer here:
Longer content is always better
If this were true, every page on the internet would read like a novel; actually if you’ve read a modern recipe website you’ve probably seen just this in action. Longer content certainly doesn’t hurt if the subject matter demands it but at the point the content is waffle, length for length’s sake, we’d advise you stop writing. Again, Google’s machine learning is incredibly smart and probably knows your 10,000 word epic is superfluous to the information a user was searching for.
The same advice holds true for short content or indeed suggestions that content should match a specific length or word count. You can find a number of studies with just a few seconds Googling. Write for the user first and foremost.
Don’t link out
Once upon a time, PageRank and Link Juice where two phrases very much in vogue in the SEO world. You’ll probably still read about them today if you go looking. PageRank was one of Google’s first openly admitted metrics in site ranking: every site was ranked 0-10 based on how many links the site had, ie. how trusted the site was. Google has claimed to no longer use this metric at all, though some do debate this.
Link juice refers to the transfer of some of that Page Rank from site to site. As one site links to another, the theory goes that some juice is passed along to the next page, also lessening the value of the page linking out.
Simply put, we think this is nonsense. Why wouldn’t you want to link to appropriate resources? If you’re providing the user with valuable content, not linking out would actually be counter-productive. That red wine stain article we talked about earlier, surely you’d want to link to the cleaning product the reader needs? We wouldn’t go crazy with outbound links – we don’t want people leaving your site in droves – but we would advise using them if appropriate. Also remember that an outbound link is a sign of trust on your part; only link to reputable sites you know and trust.
A final world of advice with that in mind, use the target=”_blank” code in your HTML for outbound links. This will mean the link opens in up a new window when the user clicks on it. When they’re finished with the site you linked to and close it down, the window with your own website will still be there for them.
You can get on page 1 of Google for just £99
You might get some spam via email, you might see it in the post, someone might even walk into your place of business. The promise is the same: we will make SEO cheap, easy and quick. SEO is an exercise in patience and learning, don’t let anyone sell you on anything otherwise.
Hosting location is important
Speed is important, location isn’t. Google really doesn’t care where your site is hosted, as long as your users can access it quickly. You might want to think twice about hosting a UK focused site in Australia (that will certainly add some load time), but generally speaking, focus on the end user and their experience of your site.
Exact match domains rank best
This theory states that if your keyword appears in your domain name, you’ll rank better. This is largely now accepted to be incorrect. Again Google doesn’t care about your domain name or its extension, just that your content matches a user’s search intent.
That said, your domain name does appear in the SERPs and a particular keyword in the domain might encourage a user to click through to your site if there’s a match.
We wouldn’t obsess about it; the word hosting doesn’t appear in our domain name at all, and we’ve been in business for more than two decades. The same is true for many of our competitors.
SEO black hat techniques to avoid
We keep talking about the no-nos of the SEO world, but what exactly are they? If you find yourself worriedly thinking, “what if I accidentally make a huge mistake?” these are some of the big ticket items to avoid:
Cloaking is the process of showing one version of your website to a search engine bot, but then displaying a completely different one to a human visitor. This technique will be instantly seen as spam and will very likely hurt your site rankings.
We wouldn’t recommend you do anything to treat bots differently to human visitors. Let the bots see your great website too!
This may seem innocuous at first but again this tactic is now considered black hat. Only a few years ago there was a legitimate and thriving industry surrounding paid links. Sites existed to connect those business who wanted inbound links to those websites that could provide them – at a cost.
Google finally cracked down on the whole industry as ultimately the practice subverts the essential purpose of a link; a credit, a tip of the hat, a nod to credibility. As a side note, it’s for this reason that it’s believed links from government or educational websites are worth their weight in gold; these institutions can’t be paid to link out like a typical website. If you do garner links from .ac, .edu, .gov, or similar sites then that’s fantastic!
Link schemes and general link spamming
Expanding on the above, any scheme or activity that seeks to artificially inflate or grow links is frowned upon. For example this might be attempting to leave comments on blogs that link back to your own site (in vast numbers).
If you ever find yourself sitting and thinking up new and complex ways to generate large numbers of links to your site, chances are you’re thinking about the whole puzzle the wrong way and are headed towards black hat territory. Focus on great content, great info, services, and products first.
Meta refresh redirects
The use of a meta refresh tag on your website page, to redirect a user from the page they landed on to somewhere else after a set amount of time can be seen as an extension of cloaking.
If you legitimately need to redirect a user from an old page to a newer one we recommend you use a 301 redirect. Your hosting company can advise on this.
Every page on your site should be unique. If you find pages with duplicate content you either need to remove the page or update the content. At the very best Google will simply ignore duplicate content. This can happen from time to time and in itself isn’t a huge issue.
At worst though, if you have vast amounts of duplicate content it could be seen as an attempt to artificially inflate the size of your site for whatever purpose.
Under this section we can also add automated sites or spam blogs; websites that are created solely to churn out programmatic content on an automated basis. These sites rarely have use or value to a real human.
As we touched on earlier, don’t try to artificially create content for search engine bots and manipulate the keyword count on your page. When creating content, write for real users.
Don’t get paranoid about this point, simply read back your page to yourself or have a friend do it. Does it read naturally? If so, it will to a bot, too.
Tiny or hidden text
Hiding text from a human reader, but making it still present for a bot to read. There are a number of ways to do this, e.g. using a tiny font size or using colours such as white text on white background to hide text from a reader. Google will penalise you if it believes you’re trying to mislead them or the reader in any way.
Bait and switch
In other words, rank a website for one specific term, then update all the content and links overnight so as to be a completely different site. Google will drop the website’s rank like a dead weight.
As you can see, most of these activities are purposeful and considered attempts to manipulate a search engines and its bots. It’s highly unlikely you would fall foul of any of these accidentally. Steer clear of black hat techniques and you’ll be well on the way to a great ranking.
SEO tools and links
In this last section of the handbook we will go over some of the tools, services, websites, and resources you might want to investigate as your SEO journey progresses.
This is a massively powerful online tool that we can’t recommend highly enough. SEMrush will do everything from give you position rank for your domain and keywords through to analysing your competitors, your content and your online brand awareness. SEMrush can be a great tool for keyword discovery too, giving you a rough estimate of how popular various terms and keywords are. It’s quite possible to stop by SEMrush’s free tool for five minutes and find yourself there five hours later, fascinated by the insights it provides.
Majestic is a great tool for analysing a website’s link profile – the volume of links a site has pointed to it. Most commonly you might want to look at who is linking to your direct competitors, maybe you can get a similar link, or maybe some new inspiration?
Moz is a popular web based service that offers a number of free (and paid) tools. Moz’s keyword explorer can help you identify new keywords to target on your website. Moz also has a great blog for up to the minute SEO info, and is very reputable.
Answer The Public
A fun tool for keyword discovery. Enter your keywords and phrases and the Answer The Public will build various suggestions for you based on known search data.
This is a downloadable tool that you can run on your PC or Mac. Screaming Frog attempts to emulate a search engine bot and will spider your site on request. It will then return everything it finds for you. The free version is very powerful and can help you spot technical errors on your website.
This invaluable tool originally came out of work developed by AOL. It’s since been taken over by Google and is completely free. You simply enter your domain, your test location and what connection speed you want to test at and the tool interrogates your site.
It will produce a waterfall chart of how each element on your site loads. This way you can see what if anything is causing site slow downs. You can also create a film reel which shows a visual user experience of the site loading. If it takes your site more than a second or two to start rendering, you might see increased bounce rates – users are anything but patient.
This tool lets you identify any issues.
Google Page Speed
Page Speed will give you a quick score card of how fast your site loads from their servers. Hint – these are the same people you’re hoping to impress with your amazing and quickly loading site.
Google Search Console
This is a free service provided by Google to website owners. We recommend you sign up all your sites ASAP. Within Search Console you can notify Google of your sitemap, you can review how your site is displaying for various keyword terms, and you can identify any issues Google has when crawling your site.
The best free site analytics tool on the market, and then some. It’s as simple to use as adding some small code to your website to start tracking every data point imaginable.
Using Analytics you can start to track and understand your bounce rate, user time on site, and much, much more.
Hi, my name is Stuart and I’m the business development director at 34SP.com. I wrote the SEO guide you just read above; wait, you really read all of that? WOW.
This is me in my natural setting, a restaurant. As well as overseeing the development of 34SP.com I run a variety of food focused blogs in my spare time. These have an SEO-centric approach and generate millions of views per year.
If you want to pick my brains, suggest an edit, or general talk SEO feel free to drop me a line at stu AT 34sp.com. While 34SP.com don’t offer SEO services directly I’m always happy to send you in the right direction if I can!
Here are some more in depth guides to read: