SEO is one of the best ways to grow your business and income on autopilot.
But it can seem overwhelming when you first start.
Don't worry! To help you learn SEO, I created this SEO for dummies guide.
Dumb or not, I will help you learn SEO in the next 30 minutes! It's not as hard as it seems.
Here are 5 stupidly simple SEO lessons for the complete beginner. Let's dive in!
Quickstart: How to Use This Guide
This SEO for dummies guide is written for the complete beginner.
The regular text in this guide is very easy to understand. However, there are also some complex topics that may go over your head right now. I've included these advanced search engine optimization tips so you can fully understand the subject.
That said, hese are not necessary for you to know to get started, and you can skip them if you're not ready to dive in that deep!
To help you navigate these complex topics, I've placed the icon you see to the left next to any "big brain" topics that are more advanced but you don't need to know right away.
I definitely recommend reading them still if you want to master SEO, but don't feel pressured to learning them right away if it's too much to take in right now. I hope this helps — now let's get to it!
Lesson 1: What Is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art of tweaking your website in a way that helps search engines like Google index and display your site in their search results.
It includes choosing keywords to target, including those keyword on your pages in key places (such as your headers, page title, and in the content), improving your site's structure and loading speed, and getting other websites to link back to your site from their site.
If that sounds like a bunch of gibberish right now, don't worry — it will all make sense soon!
In a nut shell, search engine optimization means creating high-quality content that both your readers as well as Google's robots want to see. And I'm going to teach you exactly how to do that.
But first, why should you even care?
Lesson 2: Why Bother Learning SEO?
As I said in the intro, SEO is one of the absolute best ways to create automated income and business growth.
Because once you rank on page one for a keyword, you tend to keep those rankings for a loooooong time. Years, in fact.
I should know — both my own sites and my client's sites have held their rankings for the last 3+ years, and will likely continue to do so for many more years to come (assuming we keep the pages up-to-date and relevant).
Here's our Google site traffic from the last 12 months to just one of our websites:
In other words, your SEO efforts will bring you targeted, high-quality traffic consistently with very little maintenance... for free!
Lesson 3: SEO Terms and Phrases
Before we dive into SEO for dummies, let's make sure you understand what I'm even talking about. Here are some common terms & phrases I'll be using throughout this article and what they mean so you're not confused:
- Domain Authority (DA): This is a number from 0-100 that Moz (an SEO software company) created to give you an idea of how "authoritative" your website is in Google's eyes. You raise this number by building links to your website (more on that later). Ahrefs (another software) has their own version of this metric called Domain Rating (DR), which is basically the same thing. The higher this number, the easier it is for your website to rank in Google.
- Robots.txt: This is a file you create to tell search engines (like Google) which pages on your website to index in their search results and which to ignore. More on this later.
- XML Sitemap: This is a file or page on your website that contains links to every single other page on your website. It's used to help Google (and sometimes users) more easily crawl and navigate your website.
- Crawling: When I refer to Google "crawling" your website, what I mean is their search robots (referred to as "spiders") are scanning your pages and content in order to index it.
- Indexing: Think of indexing like a filing cabinet. Google's spiders are crawling your website and indexing your pages into the proper "file", i.e. search results. When your page gets indexed, it means Google is now displaying your page in their search results (although not necessarily on the first page).
- Spiders: This is what search engine's crawling robots are referred to as. Google's "spiders" are the "robots", or pieces of code, that allow them to read and index your pages.
That's all there is to it! If you have any questions about these terms, feel free to leave a comment below and I'll help you learn what it means!
Lesson 4: Keyword Research
The first part of any good search engine strategy is keyword research. I'm putting Keyword Research before the "SEO basics" lesson for one reason:
You can do everything right and rank for a keyword... only to realize you chose a poor keyword and the traffic you're getting doesn't convert. Crap.
To avoid that, I want to make sure you know how to find awesome keywords and how to tell a great keyword from a steaming pile of useless garbage.
Step 1: My Favorite Way to Find Great Keywords
I'll be honest: most free tools suck. They require you to do way too much work for less-than-ideal results.
The method is the same with both tools — you use a feature called the "content gap" analysis. It essentially shows you the keywords that your competitors are ranking for but you aren't.
**Note: Don't rank for anything yet or just started your blog? That's OK! You can still use your competitors to find keyword ideas. You'll just have to find your competitors manually without using a tool like I show in the dropdown boxes below. To find competitors manually, just start Googling keywords you think you want to rank for and grabbing the URLs of the top 3 results for each keyword.
Depending on which tool you're using, click the corresponding drop-down box below to learn how to find amazing keyword opportunities.
First, let's find your competitors. Log in to your SEMrush account and click the "Organic Research" link on the left-hand side under the "SEO toolkit" dropdown.
Type in your website's URL and hit enter. On the results page, click the "competitors" tab.
When you scroll down, you'll see a list of all your organic competitors! Copy-paste the first 3-5 URLs on this list and put them in a notepad file or spreadsheet — we'll need them for the next step.
*Note: If you don't yet rank for any keywords, you won't be able to use a tool to find your organic competitors. Instead, Google a few keywords you think you might want to rank for and copy the top 3-5 URLs from there.
Now that you have your competitors, it's time to steal borrow their keywords!
Click the "Keyword Gap" link in the left-hand menu.
It should show your domain as the root domain. If not, enter that in now.
To the right of your domain there are several "Add Competitor" boxes. Click them one-by-one and paste the URLs of your competitors, then click Compare.
Scroll down and you'll see a list of "Missing" keywords. These are the keywords that your competitors are ranking for, but you aren't! In other words, they're opportunities for content you can create, new products, or pages on your site that you should have but don't.
Click "View details" to get a full list of all the missing keywords. That's all there is to it! Now you just need to vet the list and pick the best ones, which we'll get to in step 2 below.
First, let's find your competitors. Head to the "Site Explorer" tool and plug in your URL.
Next, head to the "Competing Domains" tool in the left-hand menu under "Organic Search".
These are your top competitors according to who ranks for similar keywords as you. Copy-paste these URLs into a spreadsheet or notepad file.
If your site is still new and you don't have any rankings, this method won't work. Don't worry — you can still use Ahrefs for keyword research.
Just head over to Google and type in a keyword you think you'd like to rank for. The top pages ranking for that keyword are likely your competitors.
Now that you have your competitors URLs, it's time to use them for keyword research! Go back to your URL overview on Ahrefs and click the "Content Gap" tool in the left-hand menu under "Organic Search".
Paste 3-10 competing URLs into the empty boxes (the more the better) and click Show Keywords. Ahrefs will spit out hundreds, if not thousands of keywords that your competitors are ranking for that you're not!
Don't worry if this feels overwhelming — I'll show you how to trim this list down with filters and pick out the winners in step 2.
Step 2: How to Tell Which Keywords Are Worth Pursuing
Now that you have a massive list of keywords, how do you know which will bring you traffic that converts and which will bog your site down with worthless visitors?
Easy: Look at the cost-per-click (CPC), number of clicks, and what the current pages ranking are trying to get their visitors to do.
It takes practice to learn what a good keyword is and there's some nuance to it, so here's an example to show you the entire process.
Let's use my friend's food blog, The Sustainable Harvest, as an example.
If we go through the process of finding keywords from competitors, here are a few I found:
These keywords are way too broad and too difficult to rank for. Unless you're a massive site like Food Network, good luck ranking for "soup".
So first, we need to filter these down a bit. I like to filter based on Keyword Difficulty (KD) and search volume.
For this example, I'll filter by a KD of less than 30 and a volume of more than 1,000. This ensures you won't get any super difficult to rank for keywords.
Here's what we have now:
Much better! Lots of good contenders here. Let's take a look at "coconut flour pancakes" because it has a high CPC of $4.00.
Here's the first result when we google that keyword:
It looks like she's selling pre-orders for her cookbook in order to monetize this keyword. If we scroll further down the page, I also noticed she uses the Amazon Affiliate Program to monetize.
Assuming you know how you're monetizing your own content, you should be able to calculate how much money you could potentially make from this keyword.
For example, this keyword gets 16,000 searches per month. On average, the #1 Google result gets ~35% of all the clicks, giving us ~5,600 visits per month if we were to rank #1 for "coconut flour pancakes".
(Note that this is assuming the page ONLY ranks for this one keyword, which is highly unlikely - you'll usually rank for dozens if not hundreds of keywords per page if you do search engine optimization properly!)
If you make $0.10 per visitor, on average, that would mean this keyword is worth $560 per month!
You could make a spreadsheet and use this calculation for every keyword you're considering ranking for to see how much each keyword is potentially worth. Then, add in the difficulty of each keyword to see income versus effort.
You're left with something like this:
*Click here to get a copy of this spreadsheet. It's free! I only ask that you share this guide 🙂
Just put in the keywords, KD and volume and it will give you your potential monthly income (assuming a #1 Google ranking and a $0.10 per visitor income).
If you make more or less, you can change the formula to whatever your income per visitor is, or do the calculations manually.
With this spreadsheet it's obvious which keyword to target first: Almond Flour Pancakes. With the lowest difficulty and highest potential monthly income, it's a no-brainer!
If you're observant, you may have noticed there are two keywords here that have to do with pancakes!
This is a great opportunity for a "content hub" (sometimes referred to as the "hub and spoke" method). A content hub is a central page that links off to related sub-pages to help with site navigation as well as SEO.
It looks like this:
For this pancake example, the main page could be a big list of pancake recipes, targeting the keyword "pancake recipes". Within that hub article or page, you would link to all your "spoke" pages that are trying to rank for individual pancake recipes.
Here's a visual:
If you're looking for more keywords for your hub, you can also filter for only keywords that include a certain word. So if we do that with "pancakes", we get some more ideas for spoke pages:
These hubs help with user experience as well as allowing search engines to more easily crawl your site and see how relevant your content is for a given topic! They are crucial to a good SEO strategy.
Want a real example of a hub page? My wife started an "Is It Vegan" hub page that links to all here "Is _ Vegan?" articles.
Still not sure how this works? Drop a comment at the end of this guide with any and all questions you have and I'll answer them!
Lesson 5: The SEO Basics
Now that you understand how to find the best keywords to rank for, let's cover what you need to actually do to get those rankings.
Put simply, search engine optimization involves three things:
- On-page SEO (creating and optimizing your content)
- Off-page SEO (building links)
- Technical SEO (site structure, site speed & schema)
I'm going to explain each of these in layman's terms that anyone could understand, so if anything sounds scary, don't worry! Just keep reading.
On-page SEO, also called on-site SEO, covers everything related to content on your website. It mostly has to do with proper keyword placement.
Specifically, you want your target keyword to be included in:
- Your page title
- The URL of the page
- At least one header and/or subheader
- A few times in the body content of your page
- In the title and alt text of at least one image
Here's an infographic to help you visualize what this looks like:
Don't want to memorize all this? No problem — just get a plugin like Yoast SEO or SEOpress (I recommend SEOpress) and it will literally remind you to do these things and give you a green light when it's done.
In addition to ensuring proper keyword placement, you must have a great user experience as well. This means writing content that is easy to read and understand, formatted well with good use of images, bold/italics, and bulleted lists.
If you want to learn more about how I make sure my content is built for a great user experience as well as written for search engines, check out this guide!
Doing these things already puts you ahead of the competition. Feel free to go to the off-page SEO section now.
But if you REALLY want to rank and make that sweet passive income, I recommend going deeper and learning about LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords as well as NLP (Natural Language Processing).
I promise you neither of these is as complicated as they sound. In fact, it's actually quite simple. But this is a "big brain" topic you can skip.
LSI keywords are synonyms and related keywords to the keyword you're targeting. For example, if you're targeting the keyword "shoes", some LSI keywords could include "socks", "feet", "laces", "boots", etc.
You can easily identify LSI keywords for your primary keyword with a tool like LSIgraph. But if you really want to make it easy on yourself, I highly recommend Surfer SEO. More on that tool later.
NLP is a fairly new way for Google to understand language and the subject of a page. It's similar to to LSI, but more advanced.
NLP seeks to understand the sentiment of a word or sentence. In other words, it wants to know whether a sentence is positive, negative, or neutral.
For example, "I hate shoes" is a negative sentiment, while "I love shoes" is a positive sentiment. This is overly simplified, but gets the point across.
Surfer SEO, the tool I mentioned to help you optimize your pages for LSI keywords, also has a new feature to help you identify NLP keywords as well as the best sentiment to use them with based on current search results.
If you want to learn more about NLP and how to use it to better optimize your pages for search engines, watch this webinar recording.
Off-Page SEO (Link Building)
Now that you understand on-page SEO, it's time to move off your website, aka off-page or off-site SEO.
While off-page SEO can include things like social media and advertising for brand awareness, the main thing you'll hear about (and by far the most important) is link building.
Link building is exactly what it sound like: building (or acquiring) links from other websites pointing to your website. Whenever you hyperlink text on your website to another site, that's a link. And that's what you want!
Now, link building is probably the most difficult part of SEO. But it's also the most important part! You can target the best keywords and create the world's best search-optimized content, but if you don't build any links, you'll never rank.
In fact, only 7.4% of web pages have more than 3 backlinks. And that's the biggest reason most web pages never get any traffic from Google!
Think of links as votes for your website. The more votes you have, the better the chance Google will choose you to represent a given keyword.
Types of Links (Anchor Text)
Anchor text is the text the link is attached to.
There are 6 different types of anchor text you can get a link from:
- Exact-match anchor text: The text linking to your website perfectly matches the keyword you're trying to rank for. For example, if you're targeting "how to make money from home", the link looks like this: How to make money from home.
- Partial-match anchor text: The linked text partially matches the keyword you're targeting. So instead of "how to make money from home", the linked text might be something like "15 ways to make money from home".
- Branded anchor text: The linking text is your brand name. For example, someone might link to one of my pages with the text "Bill Widmer".
- Naked link: There is no anchor text. Instead, it's the link itself, like this: https://billwidmer.com/
- Generic anchor text: The linking text is something generic, like "click here" or "this article".
- Images: Instead of text, an image is linked to the page.
Which is best, you ask? Well, the answer is: All of them!
There is no "golden ratio" of which types of links you want. While some SEOs theorize that your anchor text ratio should look as close as possible to what's currently ranking, I personally don't abide by that rule.
In general, exact-match anchor text has the strongest correlation with higher rankings, BUT too many can set off a red flag to Google and cause you to lose your rankings. This is to prevent people from just buying tons of exact-match links to abuse the system.
Personally, I aim for ~5-10% of my links to be exact-match (particularly from the higher domain authority sites) and the rest to be a mix of all the other anchor text types. In my opinion, the best policy is to just build links, try not to have too many exact-match, and not really worry about it too much.
How to Build Links
If there's one thing you should spend the majority of your time on when it comes to SEO, it's link building. Especially if you're a newer site with a low DA.
But I can't teach you all of that in this one article or it would be even more massive than it already is! So to learn more about link building and how to do it, check out this article.
I also outline my exact link-building process (and much more) in my SEO case study.
The last part of a good SEO strategy is technical SEO. No SEO for dummies guide is complete without it!
While you might think technical SEO mainly involves code, it's actually much simpler than that (usually).
Put simply, technical SEO includes your web page loading speed, URL structure, and navigation structure. It also covers your robots.txt file, XML sitemap, structured data/schema, SSL certificate, and breadcrumbs, among some other things.
Don't worry — it sounds much more complicated than it is and we'll break it down step-by-step. I don't know much about code and I'm not a very technical person, so if I can figure it out, so can you!
Google Search Console
If you haven't already set it up, go ahead and connect your site with Search Console. This is Google's official tool and you can do a lot of things here, including adding your robots.txt file and XML sitemap.
*Note that nearly all other search engines, such as Bing, also have their own search console you can connect with if you want to rank in additional search results.
The Robots.txt file is a simple notepad file that tells Google which pages should and shouldn't be crawled and indexed in their search engine. It's easy to create and upload. Check out this guide to do it (it takes 5 minutes).
It can look like this, though yours may be slightly different:
The XML sitemap file is a list of every single URL on your website to help search engines spiders crawl and navigate your site. If you're using WordPress, you can use Yoast SEO to create and upload your sitemap for free.
However, I much prefer and recommend the paid tool SEOpress, as it has more features and better security than Yoast. Aside from your XML sitemap and Robots.txt files, SEOpress can help you optimize your content, improve your load speed, add breadcrumbs, and much more.
Here's what your sitemap might look like:
You can also create a webpage version for users and search engines alike! You can see an example of this here. (Note: SEOpress will create and constantly update your webpage sitemap for you automatically once setup. Yoast SEO doesn't have that option.)
Website Loading Speed
Your site's loading speed is important not just for search engines, but also for your users. In general, you want your pages to load in under 2 seconds. Ideally, you want a 1-second load speed, but this can be difficult to achieve.
To test your page's load speed, put your URL in Pingdom. It will show you your site's general loading speeds, along with any issues your page has and how to fix them.
But don't take their word for it. I recommend you also test your pages on Google's Page Speed tool as well, just to double-check.
There are a few super easy ways to improve your load speed. My first recommendation is to get better hosting!
If you're getting <10,000 visits per month, I recommend Siteground. They have fast, affordable hosting.
But if you're getting more traffic than that, then go with Kinsta! Kinsta is the hosting provider I currently use for everything, and they're lighting fast, have great customer service, and have lots of extra features like a free CDN (content delivery network) to further speed up your website.
Aside from hosting and a CDN, you can also improve load speed by compressing your images and improving your site's code. To learn more, check out this guide to website loadspeed.
SSL Certificate (HTTPS)
Last but not least, we can SSL security certificates! This is the "S" in "https" in your URL. It's what gives you the green lock in the URL bar:
It's important because without it, you likely will never show up in Google search results. Google basically made it mandatory, as without one, your visitors will get a "not secure" icon next to your URL, like this:
Seeing that is sure to hurt the user experience and make people leave!
Structured Data (Schema)
Structured data is probably the most complicated part of technical SEO. And, while it is important and can help you, it's one of those "slight edge" tactics.
Meaning, you can and will rank without ever worrying about it, but it can be the difference between being the #1 result and the #2 result.
Basically, schema is extra code you add to a page to add features to your rankings such as product star ratings, recipe pictures, and the featured snippet that you often see when you Google something (see below).
Learning how to use structured data is beyond the scope of this guide, so if you want to learn it, I'll just refer you to this article.
And that's all I'm going to say about technical SEO in this guide! These are steps that anyone can take regardless of coding or technical knowledge, and are more than enough to get you ranking on search engines like Google.
That said, if you want to dive deeper, I recommend reading through this guide.
SEO for Dummies: Conclusion
Search engine optimization doesn't have to be difficult or complicated. In the end, it boils down to finding the right keywords, creating great content, and building links to that content.
If you want to learn more about SEO and how to use it to make money, I highly recommend grabbing the Authority Site System by Authority Hacker. It's an extremely effective course that teaches you SEO and affiliate marketing.
If you're not interested in investing or simply can't afford it right now, they also have a free webinar that teaches you more about SEO as well.
That's all for my SEO for dummies guide! I hope you found it helpful!
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Drop a comment below and I'll get back to you ASAP! I read and respond to every single one!